I’m currently reading von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth. Highly interesting, to say the least. I’ve read the last part of the book before — his constructive, Catholic response — but not the actual study of Barth. The bulk of the critique so far is similar to that found in Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism and is bringing to the fore of my mind a lot of what Bouyer was criticizing in Protestant thought but I didn’t quite comprehend the significance of before. Bouyer was using a realist-vs-nominalist critique that was not quite as compelling (to me) as von B’s realist-vs-existentialist (or analogy-vs-dialectic) critique. Barth’s Der Römerbrief, according to von B, starts and ends with an existential negation which serves as the paradigm for critiquing the human (incl. scripture, church, theology, spirituality, philosophy, etc.) instead of beginning with the Incarnation and making Christ the paradigm for critiquing the human (with the possibility of divine affirmation of human projects). Once the latter shift is made in Barth’s thinking, we have room for a minimal but real correspondence between finite and divine categories. Here is the core of von B’s criticism of Barth before his Christological concentration:

The experiment of the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans was to try to push dialectics to absurd limits, until dialectics rendered itself void for dialectical reasons. But this only resulted in the great irony that dialectics — which took itself to be the proven method — was not only not better than dogmatics and criticism but decidedly inferior to them. In its radical infallibility (as radical fallibility!), it actually betrayed its own self-imposed mission: to speak only of God and not to call attention to itself. It’s loud avowal, “I cannot,” is actually disobedience. As if it were making its relativity an absolute, as if it really were not relative!

The Epistle to the Romans is the very thing against which it itself raged and thundered: a pinnacle of human religiosity. Its insistent cry of “Not I! Rather God!” actually directs all eyes on itself instead of on God. Its cry for distance gives no room for distance. Perhaps, shuddering at the dreadful pain of its flagellations, we could admit that it is right — a hundred times right! But the very blow tells us of its guilt. The real scandal is the mystery of God, which cannot be evaluated in language, even indirectly. There is no suitable method for describing the “infinite qualitative difference between God and man,” even if only negatively. Dialectics cannot replace theology. It must be content to serve merely as a corrective. As the moment of indirection, it can itself be only indirect.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth (Ignatius Press 1992), p. 84.

The “disobedience” line is particularly striking. It’s the same attack von B uses against Luther and Kierkegaard in The Christian and Anxiety, and, in a way, is a sum of the Catholic critique of the Protestant use of simul iustus et peccator.

von Balthasar on anxiety

October 27, 2008

Only he who has left the anxiety of sin behind attains the fullness of faith and thus true indifference, and the entry into the realm of complete truth is unconditional joy, consolation, overwhelming light. When God bestows Christian suffering, including Christian anxiety, it is, viewed from his perspective, fundamentally an intensification of light and of joy, a “darkness bright as day,” because it is suffering out of joy, anxiety out of exultation: it is a sign of God’s ever-greater confidence in the one who believes. And what experientially seems constricting and frightening to the believer is in truth enlarging, a fruitful dilatatio of the birth canal, an interior trembling that expands faith, hope, and love. Even if subjectively it were mortal terror, objectively it is greater blessedness, a participation in the everlasting trinitarian ecstasy.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian and Anxiety, pp. 147-148.

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?

The Absolute in the Finite

September 26, 2008

The purpose of this post, and some subsequent posts, is to explore Hans Urs von Balthasar’s understanding of Being (=Love) disclosed through created reality. In short, nature intimates a covenant. Von Balthasar’s favorite illustration of this disclosure is the child’s apprehension of his own existence through the loving address of his mother:

The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother. This descent of the intellect to conscious self-possession is an act of simple fullness that can only in abstracto be analyzed into various aspects and phases. It is not in the least possible to make it comprehensible on the basis of the formal “structure” of the intellect: sensuous “impressions” that bring into play a categorical ordering constitution that in its turn would be a function of a dynamic capacity to affirm “Being in absolute terms” and to objectify the determinate and finite existing object that is present here. The interpretation of the mother’s smiling and of her whole gift of self is the answer, awakened by her, of love to love, when the “I” is addressed by the “Thou”; and precisely because it is understood in the very origin that the “Thou” of the mother is not the “I” of the child, but both centers move in the same ellipse of love, and because it is understood likewise in the very origin that this love is the highest good and is absolutely sufficient and that, a priori, nothing higher can be awaited beyond this, so that the fullness of reality is in principle enclosed in this “I”-“Thou” (as in paradise) and that everything that may be experienced later as disappointment, deficiency and yearning longing is only descended from this: for this reason, everything — “I” and “Thou” and the world — 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. (Explorations in Theology, III: Creator Spirit, Ignatius Press, p. 15)

[After some poetic profundity, von B continues later:] A subsequent process is necessary — and it is the parents’ task to begin this — in order to differentiate the initially indivisible love of the child into love for fellow human beings and love for the absolute, in order to introduce the direction for the child’s love to God. This happens most painlessly when the parents declare that they are themselves “children of God” and behave accordingly, turning to God together with their children, for then the unconditional love that flows between parents and children does not need to be tied down and “demythologized” to the limited worldly measure; rather, this can be the love that is the foundation and bears the love of parents and children and is now related explicitly to the absolute “Thou.” …This highest realization is, however, an extreme achievement that is made wholly possible only within Christianity. But even here, at the outset, it remains important that we see that Christianity will be the only fully satisfactory unfolding of what has been implied in the first experience of Being on the part of the awakening human spirit: Being and love are coextensive. (p. 17)

So, we move from Being to God to Christ in an unveiling of love. The possibility of identifying the love apprehended in our (natural) relations with the love apprehended in God’s reconciliation in Christ is challenged by the deficiencies experienced in our relations, in our created existence. Many theologians of a more existential mold (and often Protestant) will allow this deficiency to be the norm which cuts against all such identity (and so we have the classic debate between the “theologies of glory” and the “theologies of the cross,” between an analogia entis and, at best, an analogia fidei). 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”?

To be continued.

A Beautiful Mind

There’s a deep philosophical (and theological) principle in this line from Alicia Nash in the film, A Beautiful Mind

“Often what I feel is obligation, or guilt over wanting to leave, or rage against John, against God. — But then I look at him and I force myself to see the man I married. And he becomes that man. He’s transformed into someone I love. And then I’m transformed into someone who loves him.”

And now, Hans Urs von Balthasar, from Theo-Logic I: Truth of the World:

“The lover simply lets the real, imperfect image of the beloved sink into nonbeing. In the lover’s eyes, this image has no validity, no weight, no right to exist. It is, so to say, crossed out, banished from the cosmos of existing things. It is not honored with knowledge. It is not accorded the same measure of significance as if it were meant to unveil itself, as if it possessed, in other words, a truth of its own that was pronounced enough to take seriously. …God’s knowledge of things is absolutely archetypal and exemplary. He has in himself the ideas of things. This image is the correct one, not because God sees things more objectively than we do, but because the image he projects is as such the one true image that is both subjective and objective at once. Because God sees things thus, they should be as he sees them. It is to this idea of things held in God’s safekeeping that all of man’s creative knowledge has to look. Only in God can one man see another as he is supposed to be.” (Ignatius Press, pp. 117, 119-120)

And, hence, the importance of an Atonement that is universal.

Photo by Johann Rousselot

 

           “It is not the pursuit of pleasure and the aversion for effort which causes sin, but fear of God. We know that we cannot see him face to face without dying and we do not want to die. We know that sin preserves us very effectively from seeing him face to face: pleasure and pain merely provide us with the slight indispensable impetus towards sin, and above all the pretext or alibi which is still more indispensable. …It is not the flesh which keeps us away from God; the flesh is the veil we place before us to shield us from him.”

             Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

 

            This quote from Simone Weil came to mind upon reading von Balthasar’s “Theology and Sanctity” (from Word and Redemption) as perhaps a way to consider his account of the cleavage between theology, namely dogmatics as the explication of revealed truth, and sanctity — a mark of Christian thought in the wake of the advances made by the medieval scholastics. In short, the mystics and spiritual writers do one thing – detail the work of God at individual, mental states of their personal journey – while the theologians do another thing – discern the truth and coherence of God’s work in scripture and the Church. Contrasted to this are those, from the prophets to the scholastics, for whom truth is the “unity of knowledge and action” (p. 59), which is to say that truth is not concerned with man as isolated, cerebral, analytic but as governed by reason, yes, but also by the will and the heart. The latter, especially as it deals with the “affections” of love, happiness, sorrow, et cetera (von Hildebrand, The Heart), is particularly associated with spiritual writers, yet von Balthasar sees, in the premodern era, this intimate work of God as serving the deliverance and explication of revelation. It is not that the reason is blinded and prejudiced by these other movements of our mental faculties, but that it is illuminated thereby and, indeed, preserved from the vanities and prejudices of the isolated reason.

            What is this vanity? If Simone Weil is to be our teacher, it is the desire to be independent, self-constituting creatures – in other words, to be God; and the more consistent among such persons will deny God in order that one’s illusions of self-sufficiency can take course (and it matters not that this self-sufficiency is so often translated into a humanity-sufficiency, a materialist collectivism working on the same principles). This is why we fear God; it is the fear of seeing ourselves truly, as creatures and what that entails, not least what it means for the service of others who are just as “entitled” to the goods which we use to sustain the illusion: “All of a man’s treasure is simply the whole universe seen with himself as its centre. Men only love riches, power and social consideration because they reinforce the faculty of thought in the first person” (Weil, Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks).

            In turning back to von Balthasar’s concerns, we can understand how the reason likewise “preserves us very effectively” (Weil). An anthropology, as in the one which developed after the medievals, which defines man as primarily a reasoning creature who properly acts only upon a strictly defined reason, for its seemingly greater security at right conclusions, will thereby privilege the man who desires his own self-constitution, since here it is the reason alone which is to be cultivated and not the will or heart. In the theological world, this takes form in the prejudice that we can deal with God in our theological systems without dealing with him in our lives. In von Balthasar’s discussion, it is the error of thinking we – dogmatic theologians – can concern ourselves with the verum without the bonum and leave the bonum for others to deal with. What is the solution? Von Balthasar does not work out, at least not in this essay, a developed anthropology along the lines of, e.g., Catholic theorists of “personalism,” which would develop my above points on the place of the will and heart; instead, he finds the needed unity between theology and sanctity in the center of all properly Christian thinking – Jesus Christ. Here, all of our thought is to serve Christ because our thought, our very selves, is constituted by Christ for those who have faith.

            Christ, as true God and true man, is the revealing of humanity redeemed and, as such, united in service, devotion to God and the revealing of this God. Moreover, the task of the theologian is not simply to point to this man, Jesus Christ, and expound; rather, the theologian is to live this incarnating of the Truth that is fully given in Christ: “From the standpoint of revelation, there is simply no real truth which does not have to be incarnated in an act or in some action, so that the incarnation of Christ is the criterion of all real truth….” (p. 50). The important point here being, as he develops later in the essay, that while Christ is the fullness of this revelation and the criterion for judgment, it does not end with him but extends to the whole Church in “the constant repetition of the theological existence of the Lord in the life of his faithful and saints” (80). In other words, and to tie it in with my previous points, any real appropriation of the truth of man vis-à-vis God affects the entirety of his person – the reason and the will; it is not otherwise because Christ has revealed what it is to be a man taken entirely by truth in his perfect obedience to the Father, revealing man’s true relation to God (i.e., no illusions), and for those who are to receive this truth is to likewise subject oneself to the Father.

Kevin D.

Young Barth with pipe  HUvBalthasar

            We cannot pursue dogmatics without this standard [Holy Scripture] being kept in sight. We must always be putting the question, ‘What is the evidence?’ Not the evidence of my thoughts, or my heart, but the evidence of the apostles and prophets, as the evidence of God’s self-evidence.

            -Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline

            Jesus Christ is not a “principle” or a “program” but a man of flesh and blood….Jesus does not merely announce a true doctrine as prophets or wisdom teachers did. In his very existence he is Truth revealed by God. His birth is already truth: the Word of God becomes “flesh” and dwells among mankind….These are not mere materially expressed symbols of God’s attitude toward the world; they are his very attitude, which is no mere feeling but purpose, action and commitment.

            -Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Office of Peter

            The purpose of this short sketch is to relate Barth and von Balthasar to Professor John Webster’s introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, which briefly covers the history of the discipline and the varieties in task, form, and organization involved.  The two above quotes speak especially to the task and form of a dogmatics, as it is oriented to the person of Jesus Christ and his mission as the embodiment of his person.  In a way, the quotes could be interchanged, said by each other, with, of course, von Balthasar closer relating the normative witness of the scriptural authors to an authority abiding in the Church. Still, the dogmatic task as a positive science grounded in that which is anterior takes its form, here, in the covenantal work of a God who speaks his Mercy (and Justice) in Jesus Christ. Webster’s introduction articulates two orientations, not to be too strictly demarcated, found in systematic theologies: the “dogmatic-analytic,” which concerns the inner-logical expounding of Christian doctrine, and the “apologetic-hermeneutical,” which concerns its relation to other disciplines and societal thought forms in general (p. 7). Barth seems clearly to fall under the former category in his concerns (and confidence in the self-evidencing and sufficiency of Jesus Christ), as I would say does von Balthasar as regards priority but expressed with his own confidence in Christ’s (or the Triune God’s) redemptive effects in the world, especially in the lives of the Saints. Neither is want to constrict the doctrines of the faith to currents of contemporary thought, as done with idealism, existentialism, and, more recently, post-structuralism. The problematic here being that the normative or regulatory, to put it mildly, function inherent in God’s revelation is lost or highly relativized, and following upon this is the more fundamental concern that Jesus Christ in his reality, as the Word of God yet “a man of flesh and blood,” is morphed into an idea, a symbol of notional effect.
            This move towards the priority of thought-schemes relates to Webster’s other two categories based upon the way theologians consider doctrinal concepts to relate to Christian reality claims. The first are those who take the reality claims to be “‘symbolic,’ non-final though not, of course, unnecessary expressions of something anterior.” While the second group judges the reality claims to be “irreducible; they are not expressive, and cannot be translated without serious loss, since their content lies on their surface rather than residing behind or beneath them” (p. 10). Barth and von Balthasar would largely be aligned with the latter group, with those who consider decisive world-historical actions of God to involve the very content from which dogmatic statements derive. The former group, those who rework Christian reality claims into notions of, e.g., Ground-of-Being or Omega Point, considered to be more expressive of God’s relation to man and his purpose, consider the task of dogmatics to be more about deriving truth from the revelation of Christ instead of therein; thus, a prior intellectual account of man’s state vis-à-vis God, or reality in general, works as a controlling hermeneutic to which scriptural and creedal claims are subject. To a degree, this may very well be unavoidable, but the so-called “realist” alternative is averse to creating a “principle” (von B.) out of the Christ-event which neatly maps onto man’s consideration of himself. By saying that the birth, life, death, descent, and resurrection of Christ are the attitudes of God to the world, not “materially expressed symbols,” von Balthasar is locating God’s judgment (God’s consideration of man) in these very events as they reveal our abiding in sin and error at the cost of the Son’s sacrifice wherein humanity is redeemed – a redemption effected by the Spirit in the Church. Herein is the creedal confession of true God and true man; not a God apart from this man and thus not men apart from this God. The alternative is to “sin against the homoousian” (T. Torrance) and structure an intelligibility within reality invariably apart from the Incarnation which, through the Death-Resurrection, is the very securing of material reality and the event-principle for avoiding the errors of gnosticism or hyper-apophatic materialism.
            Difficulties remain, however, for the realist position. The “evidence of God’s self-evidencing” (Barth) is given by the attestations of men who are fallible and thus not the absolute to which all is subject. How to get “behind” this witness to the absolute (Jesus Christ) is the problem, which the “historical Jesus” quest has revealed as bearing innumerable difficulties, therefore, seeming to legitimize the contention that all we have is that which is the symbolic expressions of men which in their fallibility can rightly be considered as non-final – epiphenomenal of who knows what and thus of our own determining (e.g., reconstruction of the NT according to existential address and anti-“mythological” presuppositions). How a dogmatician can best go about arguing otherwise is beyond the scope of this short sketch (and my competence); but, in addition to a metaphysics of God’s free action in his creation, a popular, and legitimate, method is an exegesis that reveals the unlikelihood of the NT texts, given their second temple Greco-Roman context and appropriation/dialogue with the OT, arising from any other account than the realist one of classical orthodoxy; however, this method is limited in that Christ cannot ultimately be accounted for as if given by historical processes, thus requiring, for the believer, the witness of the Spirit and the gift of faith. 

Kevin D.

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