Theology and Personal Holiness: Simone Weil and Hans Urs von Balthasar

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.


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