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).
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.
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.
Both Ellacuria and Balthasar develop their Christologies not primarily with respect to the nature of Christ but rather with attention to his identity as constituted through his living-out of a particular historical practice or mission. And yet, whereas Ellacuria thinks of this mission in predominantly prophetic terms, for Balthasar it is fundamentally doxological and trinitarian. Ellacuria’s Christ has a mission which challenges the socio-religious order of wealth and oppression which shapes first-century Palestine. His practice is political–but not in a way that involves a zealot-style appropriation of the state-military apparatus but rather in a way that brings concrete healing to those in need and a message of divine denunciation to the worldly power and greed which has victimized them. For Balthasar, by contrast, Christ’s mission is characterized as a sending of the Son from the Father, in which his perfect filial obedience overcomes the depths of sin and reveals the glory of God.
Note where the Jews are in these accounts. For Ellacuria, they represent religious leadership which is content with the status quo (of wealth and poverty), unmindful of the prophetic call, and thereby implicated in imperial violence. For Balthasar, they symbolize a “horizontal” or this-worldly perspective which doesn’t grasp that Christ offers a mode of participation in a triune life, free from sin and guilt, which takes place in a transcendent, “vertical”, dimension. In short, Ellacuria pictures Christ as speaking out against a “Balthasarian Judaism” (religious elitist indifference to poverty), and Balthasar thinks of the Son as surpassing an “Ellacurian Judaism” (horizontal, historical preoccupation).
Neither, however, seems particularly concerned with contemporary Jews or Judaism. This seems much more problematic in Balthasar’s mid-twentieth century German context than it does for Ellacuria in El Salvador. However, in reading them, I cannot help but think that we should be more careful about using Judaism as a polemical terrain for intra-Christian debates. The question is: how to avoid this without abstracting Christology from its historical context? If this context is relevant now (as both theologians contend), how is it possible to articulate this relevance without casting Jewishness as a figure for what must be combatted theologically? This is a live issue, since the debate between Ellacuria and Balthasar–many decades later–is not over.
I have just finished reading one of the best books I have read in a long while: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth (Ignatius, 1992; originally 1951). What makes this book so enjoyable and intellectually satisfying? A number of things. First there is the treatment of Barth’s theology, which is sympathetic and yet not uncritical. Second, there is Balthasar’s equally charitable and yet scrutinizing summary of the prevailing trends in Catholic theology at the time. Finally, there is the brilliant rapprochement which he achieves between the two, without settling for easy irenicism.
Balthasar begins with Barth’s early “dialectical” period–focusing primarily on the first and second editions of the Letter to the Romans. On the one hand, Balthasar respects Barth’s use of dialectics as a “corrective to remind theology that it is speaking of God in Christ” (76). On the other hand, Balthasar worries that the dialectical approach, when taken as a comprehensive theological strategy, and hence as more than a corrective, may actually obscure the real content of Christian theology by unwittingly superimposing “a very unbiblical philosophical pantheism (or more precisely, theopanism)” (84). Theopanism is a theory in which the whole of things are seen as constituted by means of an identity with God and anything that is not unified absolutely with God is understood strictly to be nothing, pure contradiction. Barth’s dialectical phase tends in this direction by emphasising both that creaturely existence is dominated by the nothingness of sin and that grace means a return to union with God.
However, Balthasar is perceptive of the dynamism in Barth’s thought, which takes him beyond this early dialectical formula and ultimately (especially in the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics) to a comprehensive theological vision, in which dialectics remains as a corrective, but the overarching paradigm is analogical: analogia fidei. This is a wholly theological and Christocentric understanding of analogy, for it is the graciously revealed and faithfully received knowledge of God in Christ that, in order to be expressed, must be expressed analogically. Balthasar’s assessment of this mature Barthian position is twofold.
(1) Balthasar affirms Barth’s theological use of analogy and the importance of its Christological event-character, arguing, however, that many (though not all) Catholic theologians have formulated something similiar (e.g., Aquinas, Rahner, Guardini, and Balthasar himself). Nevertheless, he thinks Barth’s insistence on this point is something valuable for Catholics and Protestants to reflect upon. Balthasar also affirms that there is room within this theological analogy to speak of being, and hence of an authentically theological analogia entis. This speech will be determined from the beginning and finally by faith/revelation but nevertheless include the creaturely experience of being among its terms.
(2) Balthasar holds on to the Catholic tendency to think, in addition to this theological analogy there is a legitimate philosophical version which the encounter with God in Christ necessarily presupposes, if only as a formal possibility not necessarily realizable in the concrete. Concretely, the created world of being which philosophers study is already shaped by God’s gracious activity in Christ; hence, de facto, a philosophical analogia entis will be, at some level, crypto-theological; and yet, de jure, its possibility must be presupposed because although grace is not something owed to nature it is nevertheless meant for it and makes no sense without it. In Balthasar’s mind, this idea of a presupposed formal concept of nature (analogically related to God) is something which Barth accepts in his doctrine of creation but which he does not think through to its logical (philosophy-affirming) conclusions.
Balthasar’s chapter on “The Concept of Nature in Catholic Theology” is a tour de force, which should probably be required reading for anyone interested in questions of nature and grace. Essentially, it shows how the disciples of Przywara and Marechal who have pursued a philosophical account of the analogia entis nevertheless did so with theological ends in mind; whereas Henri de Lubac and his intellectual inheritors authentically express a theological sense of analogy closely in line with what Barth proposes. The chapter also includes a very helpful account of the context and significance of Vatican I’s use of the term “nature,” in its decree that God can be known by the natural light of reason. Balthasar contends, once again, that this possibility must be held on faith as a formal possibility, which does not imply that in the concrete world of sin and grace it is permissible to abstract oneself absolutely from the event-character of the human encounter with God in Christ and seek satisfaction in a self-sufficient philosophical system.
All in all, I am rather impressed by this text. I suggest that its subtitle could have been “analogia omnis“–in the sense that, what Balthasar attempts to affirm is a maximally inclusive use of analogical thinking with reference to God, which could proceed from being (in explicitly theological terms or crypto-theological philosophical terms) or from relationality or faith or–and this is the point–really anything. After all, everything in the created world reflects the glory of the triune God who created it. So long as a Barthian dialectical corrective is included as part of any of these reflections, bringing us back into a concrete relationship with Christ, then every analogy is formally permissible and God may be sought in all things (Ignatius of Loyola).
All of this, it would seem, is nothing other than another way of expressing the authentic doctrine of Dionysius the Areopagite–who, despite some problematic ideas about necessary mediation!–does pass onto the church a very clear sense that everything in the created world has some (let’s say, analogical) capacity to lead us back to God.