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An Appropriation of Theological Aesthetics

August 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Roberto Goizueta’s Christ Our Companion attempts to bring together the discourses of US Latino/a Catholicism, Latin American Liberation Theology, and Theological Aesthetics (represented by Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart) (24). More precisely, he argues that Latino/a Catholicism, properly understood, unites the fundamental insights of theological aesthetics with the methods and goals of liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and Jon Sobrino. At the beginning Goizueta notes a key similarity between theological aesthetics and liberation theology: both retrieve the significance of lived faith by seeing theology grounded in and oriented towards discipleship. This is clearly seen in the centrality of saints and martyrs in Balthasar and Sobrino. Goizueta’s engagement with liberation theology is common in Latino/a theology; his engagement with theological aesthetics, although not entirely unique, is noteworthy, and I would like to explore how appropriates it within his theology.

There are various themes that can fall under the umbrella of “theological aesthetics.” Balthasar describes his as a two-fold theory of the objective appearance and subjective perception of divine glory (Love Alone is Credible, 12). He does this with an analogy to earthly beauty. Structurally, this involves an extensive discussion of the fundamental principles of form/content and disclosure/receptivity. The former calls our attention to particularity: divine love is revealed through the particular form of Jesus Christ and most of all in the kenotic, self-emptying form of his life. The latter calls our attention to gratuity, divine initiative, and contemplation: the disclosure of divine love is a free, gratuitous act of God which we contemplate and to which we respond in discipleship. Goizueta’s appropriation begins with the Johannine affirmation that “God loved us first” or the “foundational priority of God’s love” (Christ Our Companion, x): “Before I look at Christ, Christ has already looked at me. Before I do, think, or feel anything, God has already lovingly looked into my eyes and, smiling, called out my name. Every other article of Christian faith, every theological statement, is little more than a footnote to this central belief: my entire life is a response to a Lover whose very gaze and call have created me and named me, thereby compelling a response” (8). The disclosure of divine love in Jesus Christ is unexpected and gratuitous, demanding a response of receptivity in discipleship. Goizueta, drawing upon Gutiérrez, places the preferential option for the poor within the realm of gratuity. The ultimate ground of the preferential option is seen as God’s free option on behalf of the poor; Christian praxis on behalf of the poor flows from the grateful, contemplative reception of divine love (98, 101). 

The theme of particularity is central in Goizueta’s appropriation of theological aesthetics: “[Jesus] became a particular human person in a particular time and place – and continues to be revealed in particular persons in particular times and places” (127). “If the content of revelation (the ‘what’) is not intrinsically related to the particular form of revelation, then the form itself (the person of Jesus Christ, or Juan Diego, or Guadalupe) is relativized precisely as revelation, as the inbreaking or irruption of the real in our world…belief alone does not save; what saves is the object, or content of that belief, that in turn evokes a practical response on our part. If Christ is not crucified and risen, our hope – the hope of the poor – is in vain” (90-91; 94-95). Goizueta’s argument is that Latino/a popular Catholicism lives out this aesthetic worldview. They really believe in Jesus Christ and they encounter Jesus in the concrete, particular moments of everyday life and devotion (110). He further argues that Latino/a Catholicism is more attentive to particularity than Balthasar on four key points. First, extending Balthasar’s own focus on the cross as the revelation of divine glory, Latino/a Catholicism focuses on the cross but sees in it Christ’s solidarity with the crucified victims of our world. Second, a theological aesthetics is inherently connected to demand to remember, and in particular to remember the victims of history (12-14). Third, aesthetic receptivity must include what Ellacuría and Sobrino call being honest with reality of the world and the oppression within it (22). Finally, he argues that this receptivity must attend to the particular place where Jesus continues to be encountered today: the crucified peoples (23, 36).

In a subsequent post, I hope to say more about Goizueta’s argument for Latino/a popular Catholicism as a source for theological reflection. The heart of the book, however, is Goizueta’s demonstration that the key concepts of gratuity, particularity, and receptivity in Balthasar’s aesthetics, fundamentally shaped by the preferential option for the poor, flourish within Latino/a Catholicism.

Resurrection as Utopia

This seemed like a nice follow-up to the Sobrino passage:

 But the fact that it is precisely here [in the resurrection] that the point of unity of all promises is to be found is of importance not only within the biblical conception, but unconditionally of importance for anthropology, for our total understanding of man. For what we are concerned with here is the promise of a way out of that dilemma which runs through all human nature, namely, the dilemma which is posed by the contradiction of death, with a promise which shows such a way out to be not only possible but finally also to be real. And the contradiction lies in this, that life promises the individual more than it can keep, that hope for one’s children and one’s children’s children is not an adequate substitute for personal fulfillment, particularly in view of the fact that one’s children and children’s children will themselves in their turn have to live in this hope. Admittedly, the ‘resurrection of the dead,’ or, to put it more soberly, the gathering up of man’s total existence, body and soul, in its temporal and transitory form into eternal love, remains an ‘idea surpassing reason,’ which can no more be constructed out of a general view of humanity than it can be out of the images of the Old Testament. But with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, this ‘idea’ becomes real, it is made present…as a reality which from now on can become the real, utopian goal of man’s life and of the world’s history. ‘Ascension’ and the promised ‘coming again’ are precisely the necessary transporting of the fact of this breakthrough – which cannot be given a lasting place within history, which must remain u-topian – to its only possible place, to the eschaton or the omega point.

Without the resurrection, two forms of perfection are pursued which narrow Christianity’s universal hope:

The individual can of his own efforts ‘perfect’ himself only by withdrawing into a spiritual realm, by resigning himself to a certain distancing of himself from the concrete and material form of his life. And history can ‘perfect’ itself of it own efforts only by (at best) striving toward a final generation which will live in a humanized world, and by sacrificing the whole concrete, material course of history of the generations which lead up to this final stage, by sacrificing them and putting them behind itself.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations, 293-295

Balthasar: “The Beatitudes and Human Rights”

June 16, 2010 6 comments

I haven’t posted recently since I have been trying to finish the second chapter of my dissertation and a couple of side papers. I recently presented one of these papers at the College Theology Society conference in Portland, exploring  Hans Urs von Balthasar’s understanding of the preferential option for the poor by focusing on his essay “Die ‘Seligpreisungen’ und die Menschenrechte” [The Beatitudes and Human Rights] (found in the fifth and untranslated volume of Explorations in Theology, pp.354-367).

While he raises his typical concerns regarding any focus on worldly progress and development, in this post I simply want to highlight five important moments in Balthasar’s essay:

  • Balthasar explores more deeply than he usually does the unity of love of God and love of neighbor, particularly with respect to the poor: “Where the poor person is oppressed, no true relationship to God can endure” (356). Balthasar argues that this is essential within God’s covenant with Israel and is deepened to its furthest extent in Christ (Mt. 25).
  • Balthasar’s general tendency in his discussion of the poverty of Jesus is to emphasize Jesus’ dependence on and obedience to the Father. In this essay, however, Balthasar also brings out Jesus’ “identification with the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted” (357) and says that Jesus’ ministry is characterized by an attitude of “drawing near” to the least among us  (360).
  • This essay has Balthasar’s most in-depth discussion of human rights and their grounding in a Christian affirmation of human dignity.
  • For those who enjoy etymology, Balthasar illustrates his understanding of mercy and the Good Samaritan with an etymological reading of Barmherzig: to have a heart [Herz] for the poor [Armen] (365). This is essential to a  full understanding of mercy and love of neighbor.
  • Balthasar’s clearest affirmation of the preferential option for the poor: at a key moment in his discussion of human rights, Balthasar argues that human rights must be accompanied by a preferential option for the poor in order to ensure that human-rights language does not function ideologically (358). In addition to this ethical/political statement, we also have in this essay Balthasar’s affirmation of the preferential option as part of our understanding of who God is: God’s preference [Vorliebe] for the poor, hungry, and the persecuted as well as the merciful, the meek, and the peacemakers (363).

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, The Obedience of Jesus

March 1, 2010 1 comment

In an earlier post I outlined the provocative position of Barth and Balthasar that the obedience of Jesus vis-à-vis the Father is revelatory of the very life of God.  This was grounded on the same fundamental position with which Tanner begins her Trinitarian theology: the life of Jesus reveals the trinitarian relations within God. In her earlier book, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, she says it exactly as Barth or Balthasar do: “Jesus relates to the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, in the mode of existence of the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, made human” (32-33).

Nevertheless, she rejects the further move of Barth and Balthasar to see this as revelatory of God in a strong sense (although in Christ the Key she only names Balthasar).  All three theologians note that we do not have in Jesus the simple unveiling of the divine nature (for Tanner, see 180, 244).  We see the trinitarian relations of God “translated” through the human nature of Jesus.  According to Tanner, the obedience of Jesus is one of the aspects that must be attributed to the “translation” of trinitarian relations within a world of sin and death.  With most of the tradition, Jesus obeys the Father only as human. But Jesus’ obedience still does reveal something about God: “Corresponding to the apparently subservient relationshp that come about because the Son is sent on the Father’s mission is the fact that the Son is of and from the Father, the fact that the Son arises out of the Father’s own substance to be the perfect divine exhibition of him” (183).  Furthermore, passages which indicate obedience (“I do as the Father has commanded me”) are primarily intended to affirm Jesus’ “exception character among men” (184). She also argues that, united to the Word, Jesus’ human nature is not obedient as to an external legislator (as it may be for a will impacted by sinful inclinations); the will of the Father is “the teaching of his own heart” (185).

This disagreement raises a fundamental question. On what grounds do we posit some aspect of Jesus’ existence as merely economic? For Tanner, obedience means subservience and thus inequality (244).  Barth, in contrast, argues that the Son reveals himself as the Son of God precisely in his (divine/human) obedience (CD IV/1, 208-209).  Some aspects of Jesus’ life seem to be more economic (“translated”) in character (i.e. his prayer to the Father); but the Son’s obedience to the Father in his mission from the assumption of human flesh to his ascension into heaven would seem to point to something more immanent in God.

The Obedience of the Son

February 16, 2010 11 comments

We find various images for the Triunity of God throughout the Tradition.  Many are biblical and liturgical (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and other are not (root, tree, fruit).  Each image tries to make sense of how we can affirm threeness and oneness at the same time, generally emphasizing the three (lover, loved, love) or the one (memory, understanding, will).  One dominant modern image for the Trinity is a communion of persons, with an emphasis on the positivity of otherness and the inherently social character of a “person.” But on what grounds do we construct such images, especially ones which go beyond a general attempt to bring together “three” and “one”?  In particular, how are we to conceive of the relations between the three persons?  At the most formal level, the Trinitarian relations are known only through the economy of salvation.  Philosophical reflection may be integral to Trinitarian theology, but the ultimate foundation is God’s self-communication in creation, covenant, and Jesus Christ.

I would like to explore one way of moving beyond this formal level; a provocative way taken by (later) Barth and Balthasar.  Both argue that the ultimate ground for Trinitarian theology is the concrete relationship between Jesus and the Father as it is depicted in the New Testament.  Both further claim that the fundamental characteristic of this relationship is obedience. Balthasar again and again says that the New Testament (particularly John but not exclusively) depicts Jesus as the one who is sent by the Father and who does the Father’s will.  This shows us who he is. Bringing together Maximus the Confessor and Ignatius of Loyola, the Son’s very “mode of being” is this receptivity to the will of the Father and the mission given to him.  Barth is particularly insistent that we must see Jesus’ obedience as revelatory of the Trinitarian relationship between Father and Son: to ascribe the obedience of the Son exclusively to his “mode of appearance” in the economy would be a form of modalism. Barth and Balthasar push this point quite far. Barth will go so far as describe this as a relationship of “superiority” and a “subordination,” while at the same time affirming the equality of Father and Son.  Balthasar uses the Son’s obedience as the jumping off point for his (sometimes quite imaginative) descriptions of the inner relations of the Trinity as mutual self-giving and self-surrender.  And although Balthasar will be much more comfortable using human analogies and images to understand the Trinity, both of their theologies are ultimately grounded in the affirmation that God is truly revealed in the concrete existence of Jesus Christ.

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