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, May 14, 2012

God's Glory Appears: Von Balthasar's Ethics

OVER THE NEXT SEVERAL DAYS, we are going to review Christopher Steck's book The Ethical Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.* Though as Steck indicates, von Balthasar never wrote any synthetic treatment on moral theology or ethics, Steck attempts to glean an ethic from von Balthasar's prodigious corpus, specifically from his multi-volume works The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (7 vols.), Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory (5 vols.), and, to a lesser extent, his Theologik (3 vols).  (There is also a short essay, "Nine Propositions of Christian Ethics," from which Steck draws.)  I have read some--though by no means all--of von Balthasar's work.  His thought is complex, and I have hardly scratched its surface, much less mastered it.  I shall therefore rely on Steck's efforts to "assemble a coherent theory of ethics out of his [von Balthasar's] approaches to related concepts--e.g., human agency, anthropology, and freedom."  (Steck, 5)  Necessarily, we will be looking more at "Steck on von Balthasar" than on von Balthashar himself independently.  I assume, therefore, that Steck presents a fair depiction of von Balthasar's ethical thought. (Though Steck himself sounds a warning: "Given the richness and depth of von Balthasar's ideas and their unsystematic presentation, however, there probably can be no definitive interpretation of his ethics.) As an aside, the title to this series is taken from Steck.  He presents this phrase--God's glory appears--as the central kernel of von Balthasar's ethical thought. (Steck, 1)

At first glance, I find some of Steck's overview in his introduction troubling.  There are some things he suggests can be found in von Balthasar's thought (which he compares and contrasts with Karl Rahner's and Karl Barth's thought) which are disconcerting.  There are other things he says which pique my interest and which suggest some real insights.

First, the attractive aspects.  To begin with, Steck characterizes von Balthasar's ethics as Christocentric.  It seems obvious to me that any Christian ethics must be Christocentric.  No flags here.**  While a natural law theory has the benefit of allowing us to speak with non-believers, there is no Christian natural law advocate that would suggest that the natural law is the last word on ethics.  The natural law is necessary, but not sufficient for salvation.  The natural law does not save, though it might help from landing us in Hell.  Who other than Christ can forgive us for our violations of the natural law?  Moreover, Christ saves.  Christ provides supernatural grace.  Christ is the way to human fulfillment in the sense of eternal beatitude.  It is Jesus that shows a way beyond the natural life of man.  Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est!

A second attractive feature seems to be where Steck says that von Balthasar (and Rahner, and Barth) want to stress the relationship with God as covenantal (or personal). As I see it, a relationship with God ought to be a one-on-one relationship, although it is never one that takes us outside the natural law or the confines of the Church. Nevertheless, in stressing a personal relationship, there seems to be a danger of minimizing the public covenants within which this personal covenant must exist.  We are not each a church.  We are not each a people of God.  We are not each our own magisterium.  We do, however, each have our own conscience, and our own intimacy and personal relationship to God.

Third, von Balthasar's ethic wants to stress how God's relationship "constitutes, at least partially, our identity."  I should think God's relationship ought to be transformative, and should help form who we are.  And yet, our unique identity does not make us something other than we are.  Regardless of who we are as an individual, we are still human.  Our relationship with God does not make us something other than men.  I think Blessed John Paul II captures the concept that Christ perfects nature well when he exclaimed to man and his families: "Become what you are!"

Fourth, Steck argues that von Balthasar's ethical thought was deeply influenced by St. Ignatius of Loyola.  (Von Balthasar was a Jesuit between 1929 and 1950.)

The deep grammar of von Balthasar's ethics and theology resonates powerfully with the Spiritual Exercises [of St. Ignatius].  Therefore, his project might be understood as a contribution to this task of articulating an Ignatian theology and ethics for the Christian community. . . . Because of [St.Ignatius's] influence, we can appropriately describe von Balthasar's ethics as an "Ignation reconfiguration" of divine command ethics.

Steck, 5.  Steck suggests that von Balthasar's ethical thought--which drew little from the Thomistic well--was more able than Karl Rahner's thought in making this Ignatian character bloom.  The Ignatian principle to seek and find God in all things (which includes persons)--buscar y hallar Dios en todas las cosas--is quite lovely.  While the implied deprecation of St. Thomas is not welcome, I find the Ignatian angle worth exploring. 

Now, the worrisome things. Steck labels von Balthasar's ethics as a "command ethics," one based upon divine command, i.e., voluntarism.  Steck, 1.  Steck admits that this "runs counter to the general trend in catholic ethics."  Steck, 1.  He argues, however, that von Balthasar is able to get around the problems necessarily or frequently associated with voluntaristic ethics (nominalism, a-rationality or arbitrariness in God's commands, the chasm between what is divine and what is human stemming from the rejection of the analogy of being) through his theory of aesthetics.  Through his theory of aesthetics, von Balthasar is able to overcome the problems with a voluntaristic ethics, but also keep the benefits of such an ethic (e.g., absolute sovereignty of God, God's freedom, and "interpersonal encounter").***  Then he suggests that von Balthasar's enterprise should abrogate the traditional natural law ethic and replace it.†

Steck suggests that there are certain benefits associated with a voluntaristic ethic that cannot be obtained through a natural law ethic.  The "living presence and sovereignty of God in one's life; the Christian life as the intentional response to God's work in salvation history; the covenantal encounter, which stakes a particular claim on the human agent; the vocational call, which comes in prayerful consideration of what God wants for oneself."  He suggests that these are "kept on the margins" by those Catholic theologians that espouse a "strictly natural law reflection."  Steck, 2.  I have no idea why the first two don't fit in with natural law thought.  As to the last two--which deal with special calls, with vocations, with the evangelical counsels--I cannot see how they contradict the natural law, unless one believes that one can have a call or a vocation to violate the natural moral law or that the evangelical counsels violate natural law norms.  I do not see the natural law ethic as suffering from these flaws.

 Fr. Christopher Steck, S.J.

*Christopher Steck, S.J., The Ethical Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar (New York: Herder & Herder, 2001).
**Christocentrism can be so absolute as to disregard any reality about man outside the New Testament covenant.  In an extremist case such as Karl Barth  (who draws from John Calvin's theology and similar apprehensiveness on the natural moral law), it results in an absolute rejection of the natural moral law, and all ethics are based upon positivism.  This sort of Christocentrism is erroneous,whatever its sincerity, because it seems to forget the subject that Christ came to save: a human.   It also seems to go against St. Paul's letter to the Romans and the overwhelming weight if not unanimity of the Catholic tradition until the Protestant Reformation, which, in various ways, rejected the natural law doctrine of the Church.  (The Protestant tradition, one may note, has been particularly ineffective in holding the front against the collapse of morals in the West.  In most cases, they have been accommodating.  This is largely the result of their rejection of natural law.)  We have addressed Karl Barth's hostile relationship with the natural law in prior postings.  See "Karl Barth's Response to Natural Law: Nein!," "Karl Barth's Tin Ear: Notes, But No Melody,"and "Karl Barth: Rubbing out the Image of God in Man."  As Steck summarizes Barth's thought: "An ethical system of universal moral norms threatens to squeeze human activity, and thus human identity, into a uniform mold that hides the existential quality of human activity--that is, its capacity to manifest an identity-shaped response to a grace that is always concrete, historical, personal, and ultimately determinative of our being." Steck, 3.  Based upon Steve Long's work, we have also had cause to address von Balthasar's (and others in the Nouvelle Theologie group) rejection of the concept of natura pura (pure nature).  See, e.g., the multi-post series on this blog: Balthasar's Theological Vacuoule, Parts 1-5.  (These can be accessed by going to the label "Hans Urs von Balthasar on Natural Law").
***I have a difficult time seeing how an "interpersonal encounter" arises from voluntarism and is not found in a realistic or natural law theory based upon reason.  Although I advocate a traditional natural law theory, it has never seemed to have minimized the "intepersonal encounter" with God through the Sacraments, prayer, lectio divina, meditative prayer, or contemplative prayer.  I think the "interpersonal encounter" may be a code word for finding an escape hatch out of the universal law. 
†"Ultimately, I want to go beyond a descriptive claim about von Balthasar's ethics (i.e., it is a form of divine command ethics) to a specific, normative claim: the central commitment of divine command ethics--that the moral obligation conforming the individual depends in a substantive way on the divine will-can and should be part of Catholic theological ethics."  Steck, 2.

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