We shall not get beyond the alternatives of “lyrical” and “epic,” spirituality (prayer and personal involvement) and theology (the objective discussion of facts), so long as we fail to include the dramatic dimension of revelation, in which alone they can discover their unity. [Human beings] can address God, and [address each other]; the Church, too, can speak to those within and to those without. But this tension is resolved in the context of a third dimension that embraces it: in the context of God’s action, which challenges the believer, takes him [or her] over and appoints him [or her] to be a witness. A witness, moreover, in the early Christian sense: a “martyr” – bearing witness with his whole existence. Otherwise he is no real “witness to the truth”. . (p. 57)
We too are involved in this dramatic campaign, so much so that the “evil day” leaves us no time to speculate about the necessarily favorable outcome: all of us must transform the graces we have received from God into a divine armor (Eph 6:13) and use it as such…
For now, under the God-given “Law” (in all its forms) will be put forward as the presence of the divine in the world, and people will attempt to subject [humanity’s] freedoms to its abstract omnipotence. And, on the other hand, under the banner of a self-absolutizing pagan culture, people will play off the “lawless” (anomos, 1 Cor 9:21) and “godless” (atheos, Eph 2:12) freedom of the “autonomous individual” against the abstract Law… Law must prove obsolete in the person who fulfills it from within, out of the love of Christ (Gal 5:23; 1 Tim 1:9), and freedom must hand itself over as a prisoner to Christ, so that it can now truly receive itself back from him (Gal 5:1). (p. 83)
If the once-for-all drama of Christ is to be exalted as the norm of the entire dramatic dimension of human life, two things must happen simultaneously: the abyss of all tragedy must be plumbed to the very bottom (which no purely human tragedy can do); and, in it and transcending it, we must discern the element of gracious destiny that genuinely touches human existence (and not merely seems to touch it). Thus the dramatic aspect of existence yields postulates addressed to Christology, although they can only be meaningful if they have already encountered the revelation concerning Christ. First, there is the postulate that Christ’s being is of such a kind that he is able to descend into the abyss of all that is tragic – far beyond the ability of any tragic hero (who only bears his [or her] own destiny) – and hence that the tragic overstretching of his [or her] person must be absolute, that is, divine. (For “demi-gods” are self-contradictory.) The other postulate is that, precisely in this abyss of unsurpassable tragedy, the element of grace asserts itself, that grace which encompasses existence and can persist and penetrate into the conciliatory aspect of tragedy. Both together lead to the absolute christological paradox: in the horror of dissolution – under the weight of the world’s guilt and of forsakenness by God – we are delivered from the meaninglessness of the world’s suffering, and grace and reconciliation carry the day. John brings both aspects together in his concept of “exaltation” (exaltation on the Cross and exaltation to God’s presence) and “glory”. “Glory” is the manifestation of the Father’s love for the world in the Son’s bearing of the world’s sin: by an inner necessity, this pure obedience to the Father calls for the Father to glorify the Son and announces it in advance . . . (p. 84)
From this vantage point, once more, we can ask the question we asked at the beginning: Are our “eyes of faith” able to see the normative form, now unfolded into a drama, as a form? The answer can now be in the affirmative. Form is a meaningful unity in a multiplicity of organs; in its fundamental articulations – his Incarnation, his preaching of the kingdom and preparing of the Church, his suffering, his solidarity with the dead and reunion with the Father, his return at the end of history – Christ’s dramatic form is the simple self-presentation of a single attitude, which is the effective expression of God’s love for the world… (p. 87)
The New Testament relationship between heaven and earth can only be illuminated dramatically, not aesthetically or in a Gnostic and structuralist manner…
Augustine, it seems, does not entirely escape the danger of an aesthetic interpretation when, arguing against the Manichees, he addresses God in these terms in his famous prayer: O God, through whom the universe, even in its evil part, is made perfect, . . . as the lower things make harmony with the better.”: here the “lower” is applied to the earth and the “better” to heaven, and the two together – despite all the individual clashes – yield a whole, a perfect harmony, in such a way that the unity between the higher and lower is better than the higher on its own…
The danger of a Gnostic and structuralist interpretation lurks in the late Jewish Apocalyptic, which has its roots in the wisdom literature. According to this, everything that is the come forth at the end of time has already existed, hiddenly, in God (thus privileged seers were able t behold it); history consists simply in drawing back the curtain that conceals what is only provisionally veiled. In such a case anthropology would be merely the realization of a correspondence that already exists between the eternal and temporal [human]: “Living here and now in the Beyond”…
Nor is the possible to take up a standpoint (in salvation history) prior to or subsequent to the earth/heaven dichotomy, as Ephrem the Syrian attempts to do, with naïve boldness in his Hymns on Paradise . . . we cannot know in advance what the stage will look like at the end of the play… not mutilation but transformation… (pp 88-9)
Tag: von Balthasar
[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]
“Probably nothing has contributed more to the misinterpretation of the biblical doctrine of the Word than the identification of the Word with the Bible.” – Paul Tillich
“We must then repeat that Scripture is not the Word itself, but rather the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Word.” – Hans Urs von Balthasar
When it comes to the place of the Bible in the 21st Century North American cultural landscape, one problem is obvious: Conventional Evangelical beliefs about it do not seem to stand up to intellectual scrutiny. Many Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, have long been accused of conceding too much of the Bible’s authority to its scholarly critics. With Christendom in the past and the promises of modernity now arguably in shambles, whether and how people of faith can restore sustainable confidence in their sacred scripture for the future remains a critical and mostly unanswered question. In response, I propose that one promising path forward may be found in the post-critical biblical hermeneutics of the 20th Century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
In von Balthasar’s “theodramatic” imagination, the Christian life is likened to the theater. History is a performance on the world stage. God is the author, the Holy Spirit the director, and Christ the lead actor. Human beings too have an important supportive role to play, as they are called to participate in God’s mission of redemption – to “dramatize,” as it were, God’s will on earth as it is heaven.
As has been suggested by others, I think the Bible should be read and seen as drama as well. In literary terms, the Bible is indeed a great narrative, and like any story, there are key moments that set the tone and determine the way that future events will unfold. The analogy isn’t perfect, but in this light, it can be argued that, while no less inspired or authoritative, the Bible and its interpretation can begin to function in a more dynamic, subtle and compelling way. And when this happens – remarkably! – whether one problematic verse or passage appears to conflict with the character of God as revealed in Christ no longer has the power to undermine the credibility of the entire biblical canon.
One of the main reasons for this is that, viewed as drama, the Bible takes on a shape and an organizing form rather than just a status (inerrant, infallible, etc). Hence, instead of predominately being read as a collection of propositional truth statements or moral guidelines, the structure of the Bible itself and the big story it tells becomes an enriching tapestry into which people get to be woven for the purpose of creating something beautiful and transformative. The problem though is that, without a key or high point to help us discern its overarching pattern, the otherwise revelatory, admonishing and redemptive texts of the Bible can become blurred and confused with the tragic, comic and obscure elements that are also strung throughout. This is why the climax of a drama is so crucial for distilling its most fundamental meaning.
Of course the climax is not all that matters. In fact, the other parts are essential for forming the whole, but the heart and the rhythm that tells us the story’s central significance is utterly lost without its culminating moment. The climax of a drama, therefore, is like the axis of a wheel out of which the supporting characters and events shoot like spokes in every direction. The climax is the key event that captures all others and reorients them into its orbit.
In the case of the Bible’s drama in particular, the climax occurs in the event of God’s self-revelation and dramatic action in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this claim is also what distinguishes the Christian understanding of revelation from that of most other religions, but especially Judaism and Islam. God is shown, and God’s love is demonstrated, by dwelling fully in a human being (Colossians 1), and not first and foremost in a sacred text or law.
Balthasar is also fond of saying that “truth is symphonic.” That is, truth can only be wholly experienced and perceived when presented in more than one form. Hence, there are four Gospels, not one, and they can’t just be synthesized together without compromising the integrity of each one. As symphonic, however, there is a musical key, and therefore a harmony that can be heard between them. According to Balthasar, then, we must bring all of our aesthetic senses to the Bible for an adequate hearing and viewing. Furthermore, just as we must tune in our ears to hear the truth, we need the right scope and lenses for proper vision of it. The form of the Word of God has “plasticity,” Balthasar insists, and such that is only appreciated through a “field” of view:
“Only Scripture itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself. But a body is itself a ‘field’, and it requires another ‘field’ in which to expand, a field part of whose form it must already be if it is to stand in contrast to it. Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God. Even Scripture is not an isolated book, but rather is embedded in the context of everything created, established, and affected by Christ – the total reality constituted by his work and activity in the world. Only in this context is the form of Scripture perceivable.”
But how will we know this form when we see it? How do we avoid arbitrarily relying on our own reason and experience when interpreting Scripture? Reason and experience are crucial, but they can’t be the highest measure of our faith. Something else has to function as a hermeneutical key. As already indicated, and as Balthasar has answered for us, the key is the climax of the drama itself: the person and teachings of Jesus, the one who fulfilled the letter of the written law by going beyond it in divine and human form.
In other words, because there are human and cultural fingerprints all over the Bible, there has to be a climactic light that illuminates each passage to show us the difference between its human and divine components. Karl Barth was another giant figure who stressed that the Bible must become the Word of God, which occurs when it is read and exposited by a faithful, worshiping community. Revelation is an event. It never belongs to an object or text as such. It approaches us more so than the reverse. This would partly help to explain why people are able to use and abuse the Bible for all kinds of distorted ends. Thus – and this is what has been so difficult for modern people – interpreting the Bible is not just an intellectual activity. It is the activity of the eyes, ears and heart in the light of faith, guided by the Holy Spirit and the key of the Incarnate Word. In this way, the church can learn to see and discern its role in God’s drama.