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, June 25, 2012

God's Glory Appears: Divine Obedience and Freedom

VON BALTHASAR'S ETHICAL THEORY is based upon a divine command theory, though it seeks to avoid the traditional problems that plague such theories. One way is to compare the submission to the command as analogous to the submission on experiences upon seeing a work of beauty, only instead of beauty, it is the Glory of the Lord to which one responds. The second way he softens the seeming external imposition of a divine command is with his notion of mission.

In our last blog entry we saw how the creature confronted with God's glory submits to the Lord in love.  Von Balthasar desires, however, to avoid this submission translating into a loss of human freedom.  Though he wants to preserve the notion of God's sovereignty, he also insists on human freedom.  Von Balthasar "maintains that it is the divine intent to bring forth such freedom" from the act of obedience to the sovereignty of God which manifests itself in glory, "a human freedom that is distinct from God's own."  Steck, 83.  This seems paradoxical: to exchange one freedom to gain one freedoms, but these sort of paradoxes are deeply scriptural.  "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."  (Luke 9:24; cf. Matt. 16:25, 10:38, Mark 8:35)

Von Balthasar tries to effect a reconciliation as it were between God's sovereignty and our freedom through the concept of mission.  Specifically, he tries to couple our freedom-giving mission with the freedom that is experience among the persons of the Trinity.  The relationship between the Son and the Father is clearly one of submission (e.g., "I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.") (John 6:38), and yet there can be not question that, as God, the Son is sovereignly free.  It seems quite clear that God wants us to be free as well.  The classical referential text: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." (John 8:32)  "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free."  (Gal. 5:1)

 Crucifixion by William G. Congdon

To gain this freedom which God is desirous to give, the Christian must incorporate himself as it were into the very mission of Christ the Word..  "The task of Christians is . . . to shape their lives into a response in which the unique word that God has made them to be is given expression."  Though the image is "analogous" and "obviously imperfect," von Balthasar's ethics sees the mission of the individual as being one where he "becomes a christological 'person' of the Trinity," though it be in an adopted and not substantive sense.  Steck, 83.

This puts squarely into paradox: "autonomy is achieved by an ever greater dependence upon God."  Steck, 83.  God is able to achieve this, well, because he is God.  "The one, absolute freedom of the Godhead has room for the 'otherness' of human freedom because, as von Balthasar repeatedly stresses, God is already "Other" in the unity of the Spirit, and this divine otherness is the basis for every created otherness."  Steck, 84.

Von Balthasar's concept of mission, then, informs the ethical life:

Since the space made available to the individual through Christ's mission is not 'a mere fluid medium' but rather 'a personal and personalizing area' (TD3.249), the Spirit's prompting will direct the person to embrace more than just general ethical norms or universal principles. He will be called to the unique, personal norm that is his best particular way of freely and creatively participating in the divine interplay.

Steck, 84.*  What von Balthasar is seeking to do is to avoid the ethical life as being viewed as a submission to an impersonal law or impersonal code.  Though he is not advocating by any means some sort of Christian anarchy or Christian antinomianism, he is insisting (I think properly) that the Christian life is ultimately an encounter with a person, the person of Christ, and, moreover, it is deeply Trinitarian inasmuch as it participates intimately in the life-giving Holy Spirit and its unique promptings.  For von Balthasar the "norm must be personal," and the "only such norm is the Spirit."  Steck, 85.  And all this provides an authentic freedom, a freedom that is not contrary to Law, but a freedom that goes well beyond anything the Law can give.  "Through the personalizing presence of the Spirit, we reach into absolute freedom and form ourselves [or perhaps better, are ourselves formed] into the 'I' that God created each of us to be."  Steck, 85.

The ethical life is therefore intimately personal, and though it would be a mistake to attribute to von Balthasar any antinomian character, it is equally a mistake not to see the personal and freeing nature of the ethical covenant as each human person submits himself to the glory of the Lord seen most resplendently in the Christ event (and its apex being the Crucifixion), and in that submission participates in the very mission of the Son, and receives the gift of the Holy Spirit who, it has been promised, will guide us into all truth (John 16:13), including that truth that sets us free (John 8:32).
Thus the Spirit is the gift to us of both "a concrete plan of the future, in accordance with our own mission and hence our own personality, and the inner free spontaneity to carryout, recall, and follow this plan." (TD3.52) . . . Thus, through the Spirit, the Father gives Christians "an acting area in which they can creatively exercise their freedom and imagination." (TD2.273) In our ethical lives, we do not "trace a path already marked out for us, as if we were immature children"; rather, divine freedom "has 'prepared' a personal path for each one of us to follow freely, a path along which our freedom can realize itself." (TD3.52)

Steck, 85. To be sure, since we are inserted into Christ's mission (and it is thus that we obtain the Holy Spirit which gives us freedom), and Christ's mission is one, "the personal identity given to each person and the ethical path it entails will always be christomorphic."  Steck, 85.  Strictly speaking, one does not access the Holy Spirit and gain the freedom of the sons of God except through the channel of the Son's mission.

To be sure, von Balthasar accounts for both light and dark.  There are times when we walk and bask in the light of the Lord, and other times where we walk in the dark night of the soul.  Sometimes, the ethical life requires a sort of "prophetic obedience," one which "requires only word and hearing, not understanding or vision."  With "prophetic obedience," we enter into a sort of "'dark' obedience that God genuinely demands of the Christian."  Steck, 85-86.  This sort of "'dark' obedience" is best displayed in Christ's own "'dark' obedience" as manifested in his acceptance of his passion and death: Christians, along with their master, can have their own Gethsemane, their own via Dolorosa, their own Cross.

To sum up this part of von Balthasar's teaching, the Christian ethical, we might put it all together as does Steck in his synopsis:

The story of Christ draws the individual to enter its story (first level of obedience). Christ's narrative becomes his narrative. The Christian in faith moves from the immanent narratives available to him through his community, family, occupation, etc., and to the narrative that comes to be his in faith. Because he identifies himself entirely with its central character, the desires and wishes of the Father become, in divine obedience (second level), his own. The story that will be authored for him in God's command to him will always be the story of his Son. But in this story, there will also be moments of dark obedience, including the demands for acceptance of suffering and forbearance within it. . . . But this kind of blind obedience is not a self-violating obedience. God's commands will never, existentially or ontologically, direct the Christian out of the story of the Son or away from the idea of unique personhood eternally guarded for each person.

Steck, 86.*

This synopsis is deeply Scriptural, but it is also Ignatian.  "The Ignatian rhythm of indifference and engagement, of contemplation and action, that is part of this story forestalls any disruption by the divine command of the individual's most inward sense of self, since that self has in its deepest freedom identified itself with the personal freedom of God as displayed in Christ."  Steck, 86.

For von Balthasar, Jesus is the "concrete analogy of being," and is "the revelation of the relationship between divine and human freedoms."  As it has been revealed, "these freedoms must be characterized in personal and obediential terms."  Steck, 86-87 (emphasis added)  The Holy Spirit adds an entirely new dimension to this: through the Holy Spirit "God's freedom not only engages human freedom dialogically and interpersonally, but also comes to the individual as the one who bears his freedom."  Steck, 87.

All this participates in that paradox of the Christian ethical life that is captured in this couplet from John Donne's poem, "Batter my heart Three-Personed God":

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
*The jarring (at least to my ear, and to traditional usage) female personal pronouns used in a generic sense have been substituted with traditional masculine form pronouns used in a generic sense.

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