The Absolute in the Finite, pt. 2

October 9, 2008

In Part 1, I concluded: But, if we follow von B, the experience of love here and now, as between mother and child, can be apprehended as “the highest good” and “absolutely sufficient,” wherein all of existence is “lit up from this lightning flash of the origin with a ray so brilliant and whole that it also includes a disclosure of God.” Still, this existence also reveals a feeble contingency wherein death, non-existence, seems to be the only true and trustworthy absolute, the consummation of our being. So, how can we know from existence as it is given to us, apart from the explicit promise of the Word made flesh, that Being as life, as love, as creative, is the final word? Must not we say with Heidegger that Being and death (not love) are coextensive, such that Being is “Being-toward-death”?

This deficiency experienced in our natural contingencies is put in dialogue with our spiritual contingency. This spiritual Being is brought to us in our experience of Being as given, as given in love: “…the fact that one must exist in keeping with the laws of the world is a subtraction from the beatitude of the original permission to exist; all the necessities of human life and of the subhuman nature are deficiencies vis-à-vis the original experience that Being means fullness, joy and freedom and that in this sense, as the genuine reversal of necessity, it demands and receives man’s unlimited assent” (Explorations in Theology, III, p. 33). This is one of the many ways in which von Balthasar wonderfully expresses the tension I believe fundamental to all of our divinity, philosophy, art, and relationships. I think we could further describe it as a sort of hesitant revolt from the depths of our existence toward existence as we know it. Existence qua existence is good, perceived as an unfathomable gift and inscrutable as object of our “unlimited assent.” Existence, however, as we live it, suffer it, and die to it, receives our firmest disapprobation. Thus, Being is a mystery which we are hesitant to accept, in the full range of that term. Many persons are paralyzed by this recognition (of Being’s own internal threat) and will subsequently spend their lives in a mediocrity of hesitation. Others will attempt to transcend the tension, especially in a Stoicism popular to every generation. Others will affirm the deficiencies and relativize Being accordingly (as less than Good/Love), in a Cynicism popular to every generation. But these answers do not satisfy, as the experience of Being as Love, as Gift, as Grace haunts us. So, where should the “natural” man stand, since the Christ who gives the definitive answer to the question is yet unknown? Or, actually, is Christ known, as promise if not (yet) as fulfillment? Von Balthasar seems to come to the latter conclusion, with important qualifications:

Thus, behind what is apparently the alien element in nature — the element on which he himself is built and which governs him as far as his highest capacities — stands ultimately an eternal Spirit that is related to this own spirit; as spirit, he can only have an unmediated relationship to this Spirit, from which the process and the mediation of the world’s nature do not distance him in any serious way. He would not be able to see God as a natural being in the infinite cosmos unless he had already found him beforehand as a spiritual being: as his own origin in the love whose remembrance can never be wholly buried and which remains the secret or open horizon against which he must measure everything that is in the world. In this process, two things will happen: he will be able to arrange what is in the world into a certain ascending scale of approximation to the absolute measurement…, but he will also know at the same time that nothing in the world can, as such, bring him to the point of absolute love; rather, absolute love can only turn to him on its own initiative, in freedom. But although it is true that this cannot be compelled on the part of the world nature (“grace” cannot be postulated by “nature”), it is equally true that subspiritual nature can have its foundation only in the absolute Spirit (and thus in love), and this means that there is a promise inscribed on nature itself that this free fulfillment of all the world’s searching and all searching (“eros”) of existence for the definitive encounter with love — in short, salvation — will one day become a real event. (Ibid., p. 21)

Our distinctions will have to follow those above, to wit, grace (and salvation) cannot be “compelled” or “postulated” from nature, but it is “inscribed” therein. What does this mean, and is it sufficient? Is it a distinction without difference and thus deserving a firm Nein?

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