The Absolute in the Finite

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.

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