Toward atheist/Roman Catholic dialogue: Comparing philosophies of the spiritual life in Rahner and Santayana

Daniel T Pekarske, Marquette University


At the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church pledged itself to a more serious and profound examination of the sources of modern atheism. The hope was to discover through such a study any hidden causes of unbelief. Unfortunately, after years of apologetic controversy, the Catholic community found itself at a loss to engage in any such mutually illuminating dialogue. Even theologians eager for exchange lacked a vehicle which could represent both their own positions and those of unbelievers in an unbiased and reliable enough way to promote dialogue. This dissertation attempts to fill that gap by suggesting a vehicle for dialogue, one based on the three part, J-shaped structure of comedy: descent to crisis, resolution, ascent to beatitude. The approach is broadly speaking, phenomenological. By bracketing metaphysics and concentrating on the interlocutors' descriptions of the spiritual life, it aims to reveal similarities and dissimilarities overlooked in other approaches. To test its adequacy, the model compares the philosophies of the spiritual life of the German, Catholic theologian Karl Rahner and the American atheist George Santayana. The result of the exercise is a qualified success. The vehicle proves plastic enough to afford accurate and unbiased representations of both views of the spiritual life. And it is substantial enough to surface a number of real and interesting similarities and differences, while at the same time distinguishing substantive from merely verbal similarities. Arguably, the vehicle is never wholely successful in bracketing metaphysics, and this can be seen as a weakness. Also, although the dissertation does illuminate one particular variety of materialist atheism, it does not uncover any previously completely hidden causes for unbelief. The dissertation does, however, make three contributions. In terms of Rahner and Santayana studies, it provides an accurate description of a long-neglected but important facet of their work: their philosophies of the spiritual life. In terms of atheist/Roman Catholic dialogue it offers a promising vehicle for engagement. And finally, it sheds some light on the contemporary debate over the role of imagination in religion, by illustrating how neither metaphysics nor poetry alone is adequate to render the depth of religious experience.

Recommended Citation

Pekarske, Daniel T, "Toward atheist/Roman Catholic dialogue: Comparing philosophies of the spiritual life in Rahner and Santayana" (1989). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI8925420.