Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Balthasar's Theological Vacuoule, Part 4

HANS URS VON BALTHASAR APPEARS to have been convinced that the concept of pure nature had to be abandoned as an inadequate theological concept. In his book on the theology of Karl Barth, he sets forth his understanding of the Catholic position on the nature/supernature complex, but his understanding of it appears to deviate from the inherited Thomistic synthesis.

[T]he concept of a pure nature cannot be exactly specified. Based on the belief that it is possible to give a clear exposition of interwordly structures in their eidos, at least up to a certain point, some people then think they have discovered purely natural and purely isolable relationships. Then they feel justified in continuing this construction and likewise in drawing conclusive boundary lines, even going so far as to specify the relationship of this hypothetical "being" to God and its ultimate fate! But it is obvious how questionable the results of this are. For were do we get the right to understand these interwordly structures as if they were disengaged from transcendence? How can you drain marriage, for example, or the whole of mortality of its concrete relation to God and the Last Things? The only end we know in our de facto world is our supernatural one. So how can we so blithely maintain that the world possesses a self-sufficient definitive ground of fulfillment apart from this end? Only God, God alone, can have the final word. The fact that grace is free in its relation to nature does not suffice for making pure nature so governing a concept.

In this excerpt, Balthasar correctly states that the concept of nature cannot be exactly specified. But, then, what can? There is nothing it seems that can ever be exactly comprehended if for no other reason that we don't know God's mind on the matter. But that's not the point. With that sort of standard, we would be relegated to agnosticism in knowledge. There is even a little "irrationalism" in Balthasar in taking this view. Long, 72.

Creation of Man and Woman
Fresco by Giusto di Giovanni Menabuoi (ca. 1390)
Baptistry of the Cathedral, Padua, Italy.

The point is that the concept of pure nature can be sufficiently specified to be intelligible, that it can be recognized as an ontological reality. While we will never know pure nature since God saw fit to order nature from the beginning by raising it up with supernatural grace to another order, God did not by all that terminate the internal integrity of the natural order. Nor does it mean that nature is now meaningless, as it retains its own order and its own end separate and apart from the end with which it has been endowed through grace. Nature was not destroyed when God joined with it sanctifying grace. "To be further ordered," Long notes, "is not not to be, nor is is to be naturally unknowable." Long, 73.

Interesting is Balthasar's challenge to the reader: "For where do we get the right to understand these interwordly structures as if they were disengaged from transcendence?" It is interesting because of what is implied or what is assumed. It assumes that "pure nature" is "disengaged from transcendence," that man, in his nature, is not ordered toward the transcendent. But this materialist atheonomic notion of human nature is foreign to Catholic tradition. Pure nature has its own order, an order that has a relative albeit not absolute ordering to God; after all, pure nature retains its spiritual (rational) character which reaches upwards as well as outward. Through reason alone, that is as part of a specific part of his nature, man can know God as First Cause, and he can recognize that this God-as-First-Cause is worthy of veneration, to be prayed to, and even adored. More, even the free will of man--a natural faculty--achieves its freedom while being acted upon by God. Therefore, both in his intellect and in his will, natural man--though, granted, it is a hypothetical or abstracted concept since in the concrete or de facto world we do not see it alone--is ordered toward God. It is this denuded notion of human nature--a notion which is wrong--which lies at the heart of the Balthasarian discomfiture with the notion of pure nature. "Balthasar possesses a non-theonomic concept of nature, and so to overcome this one must hotwire nature to grace." Long, 75. Had he comprehended the theonomic aspect of man's nature--theonomic even without sanctifying grace--he might have been less defensive and more open to traditional thought on the matter. The problem was that Balthasar did not, and in his anxiety or "overweening exigency to avert the dangers of naturalism" he ended up throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Balthasar's defensiveness shows itself in hyperbole (or, as Long puts it, it "surpasses hyperbole"): "The only end we know in our de facto world is our supernatural one," Balthasar says. The "only end"? Taken literally, of course, this is untrue. We know many ends that are not the final end, the finis ultimus. When we wake up in the early morning and stumble toward our kitchen to get a cup of coffee we must certainly know, even through our fog, that we have the intent of pouring ourselves a cup of coffee. From this most mundane of ends to the end of knowing God as First Cause, many knows myriad ends that are other than the supernatural one.

Balthasar's statement is more than hyperbolical. It is also inaccurate in a theological sense since we do not know de facto our end, for we shall only know our end when we achieve the beatific vision. What is de facto known, and this through Revelation, is that God created our nature with its specific order and end, and that he conjoined with it at the time of our creation, a supernatural destiny, one of predicated on unmerited grace, a sanctifying grace that included with it the promise of Heaven of the beatific vision of God. Moreover, man's natural end must be known, for if it is not, then man cannot know who he is and what he has received by being given the gift of sanctifying grace. It is man's natural end which defines who he is as a species. Additionally, as Long shows, to suggest that there is no such thing as human nature throws a potential wrench in the works of the entire Nicean and Chalcedonian Christological construct. How can we say that there are two natures--man and God--in the person of the Christ when we don't know what the nature of man is? It would seem that the analogia fidei would have warned Balthasar that he ought not to have taken the extreme position that it was impossible to know what human nature is.

The Balthasarian dismissal of pure nature has more than doctrinal ramifications. It has some serious effects upon morality, which is particularly our focus. As Long observes:

To hold that human nature is not intelligible in its species in distinction from grace . . . is also to imply that no definitive distinction can be made between our natural rational participation in the eternal law that is know as the natural law and that essentially higher participation of the eternal law which is that of the lex nova [new law] and gratia [grace].

Long, 74.

Such an empty concept of nature has two undesired effects. First, it empties nature out of any ontological thickness and seems to make it more a "remainder of dialectics," a leftover of theological arguments of days of yore. A hangover from too much drinking of the wine of scholasticism, from which la nouvelle théologie was supposed to be the much-needed Alka-Seltzer. Plop. Plop. Fizz. Fizz. Oh what a relief it is!

But this eagerness to escape the clutches of neo-scholasticism, this effort at relief, if careless or hurriedly done so that essential truths are neglected or denied, has serious consequences for the notion of analogical thinking, so central to Sts. Augustine and Thomas:
[I]f there is no distinct ratio or nature, there is nothing to be treated analogously in any traditional sense of the term, and the resultant construction is a dialectical orchestration perhaps closer to Hegel than to Augustine or Aquinas.
Long, 74.

Worse, the Balthasarian dismissal of pure nature as a pipe dream actually works against what he is trying to do: protect the supernatural end of man. "[T]he effect of the unilateral suppression of nature in behalf of grace is the implicit reductio of grace to the natural level." Long, 74. In the long run, it serves to naturalize grace, which means to cheapen it.

In case someone were to accuse Long of being unfair to Balthasar, we can just let Balthasar keep talking. It is unquestionable that, as Long puts it, "Balthasar undertakes the decisive and final rejection of natura as primordial revelation in preference for a more controllable variable of natura as merely the minimum prerequisite to grace, 'createdness as such' and the 'antechamber that is not of itself the grace of participation.'" Long calls these the "capstone" paragraphs in Balthasar's formulation of the Catholic position on nature and grace in his Theology of Karl Barth.

While we do not need to describe it in great detail, this image of the servant who has been simultaneously clothed in the grace of friendship captures the contrast between nature and grace. Nature is to be sought in that minimum that must be present in every possible situation where God wants to reveal himself to a creature. And that minimum is expressed by the term analogia entis. If there is to be revelation, then it can only proceed from God to the creature--to a creature that precisely as a creature does not include revelation in its conceptual range. The "nature" that grace presupposes is createdness as such.

We shall call this concept of nature the formal concept of nature. This minimum is therefore the presupposition of all grace because its necessity must be prior to the facticity of any and all revelation. As revelation takes place, nature is set off from it as the antechamber that is not, of itself, the grace of participation. When the inconceivably free event of grace occurs, it becomes simultaneously clear how truly gratuitous this frees of all gifts really is and how much it does not have to be.

This notion of Balthasarian scarequote "nature" is thin indeed. It is a concept where nature is a "mere dialectical limit concept or posit." Long, 79. But one has to ask, is human "nature" nothing but "createdness" as such? So the nature of man which allows him to enjoy the gift of grace is "createdness as such," the same createdness of a rock, a scarecrow, a carrot, and a dog? How is man's nature capax Dei, capable of God, if it just "createdness as such"? Balaam's ass enjoyed the same, and surely it isn't in heaven?

So [for Balthasar] nature is merely a negation of the participation of grace, an empty place for grace, generically [not specifically] necessary prior to the gift of revelation and yet vacuous: blank Newtonian space for the reception of the revelata.

Long, 77.

Manifestly, we have here no concept of human nature as something integral in itself, an ontologically positive object, with its own relative, proportionate end. But there has to be something more to human nature than "createdness as such" to be a meaningful repository or recipient of that grace. In man, God wrought more than "createdness as such," God wrought man, man with a specific nature.

What that specific nature is is what Balthasar appears to have decided not to divine. No, not even not divine. It appears that nature is something Balthasar decided not even to understand.


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