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Formalism in theology

October 16, 2010 11 comments

The idea of approaching Christ as a form–an idea popularized by Hans Urs von Balthasar (among others)–tends to crop up wherever the mere fact of revelation becomes the primary locus of theological attention, as it does, for instance, in the first volume of Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, subtitled “Seeing the Form.”  The decision to prioritize the fact of revelation finds its catalyst, and perhaps its warrant as well, in the epistemological anxiety of the modern age, within which, at least since Kant, it has come to seem impossible to think of the divine except as located on one or the other side of a fateful dividing line: that between the world of phenomenal objects present to consciousness, on the one hand, and the theoretically unknown noumenal beyond (for Kant a purely negative construct), on the other.  If the former, then “God is dead” and there are only idols; if the latter, then “God,” if anything, is inaccessible, and this is all that can be said.  The fact of revelation shatters this dichotomy: Christ, as visible form of the invisible God, makes actual precisely that which modern epistemology conceives as impossible. 

In his theological aesthetics, Balthasar richly develops this remarkable fact into a formidable theory of revelation, which has enjoyed a wide influence.  Without disputing its importance, I would, however, like to raise one concern, in the form of a question: To what extent does the perspective which presents Christ as a form promote, almost certainly despite itself, a certain formalism in theology?  I’m thinking here of a style of reasoning in which the mere fact that God is revealed in Christ (or analogously, in the church) takes precedence over questions regarding the determinate content which comes to light in Jesus’ parables, his healings, his prayers, the particular way he died, the particular way he rose from the dead, the precise images and concepts which the church has developed in order to understand itself in relation to Christ, and the many ambiguities which accompany these developments. 

I cannot at the moment point to any textual location (and, of course, Balthasar himself does not shy away from detail), but over the past several years I have heard praise expressed, on a number of occasions, for a theological text because it is Christological, ecclesial, Trinitarian–or in other words because it accepts the mere fact of revelation in one way or another–with almost no attention given to how adequately the text in question brings out those details which are most decisive for the gospels and for Jesus’ first disciples.  I propose that Jesus and his followers were not primarily concerned with the issues framing modern epistemology but rather with things such as death, disease, poverty, holiness, wisdom, the law, the prophets, the empire, the end of days, the promises of God, . . .  

Approaching Christ as a form is probably a necessary condition for the possibility of our appreciation of the details of revelation, precisely insofar as we find ourselves in the modern academy, but sometimes it seems easy to forget that this transcendental theological intervention is far from sufficient.  It is only a beginning–and perhaps finally not really the point.

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