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.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

God's Glory Appears: Submission to the Christ-Event

CONFRONTED WITH THE CHRIST-EVENT, specifically, the sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross, the Christian is presented with a theodrama, a drama which reveals the Glory of the Lord, and it requires a response. The proper response is a response of submission, or subjection, or obedience. But however one calls this act, one must not forget its person-to-Person quality.

For von Balthasar this act (in man) is a two-fold subjection, a creaturely one and a divine one.  There is a subjection "of our whole nature and person to the service of Christ inasmuch as we are made for him who is our divine head."  In the second subjection (which is simultaneous with the first) we internally adopt "the mind of Christ, whose divine inner freedom and personhood are identical with his obedience to the Father."  Steck, 80 (quoting Balthasar's Christian State of Life, 216-17)

We shall explore this first, creaturely kind of submission in this posting.  The second, divine kind of submission will explored in our next posting.

The first sort of obedient response, the creaturely, is the obedience of faith.  "[F]aith is 'demanded' by God from the one who perceives Christ-form not heteronomously but rather 'aesthetically,' as a free response of gratitude."  Steck, 80.  In other words, the obedience of faith requires us to see more than just a man dying on a cross.  We have to "look beyond" what we see with our eyes, "beyond" history, as it were, and recognize that before our eyes, and a certain time in history, something unique occurred: God gave the human life he had assumed for our sake up for us for our sake.  This is the "form" that must be perceived.  Once faith sees this, and understands the "why" of this dramatic event, this form, he is thankful.  This response is analogous to the aesthetic response, and so we have to recall that this "power of aesthetic expression is never overwhelming power."  Steck, 81 (quoting TD2.28)

Deus Pulchrum est! Venite! Adoremus!

This draw of the form of the Lord as he is found on the Cross is not overwhelming, and the divide caused by its lack of overwhelming nature and its respect of creaturely freedom is that two thieves hung with Christ have such disparate responses to the Lord between them.  One submits in faith.  The other mocks.

What of course the submitting thief learns and the mocking thief loses is that the submission to Christ yields in perhaps a paradoxical or oxymoronic character--it is certainly unexpected--a freedom.  This submission "grants freedom," and it "illuminates, in itself and in the man who encounters it . . . the realm of an infinite dialogue."  Steck, 81 (quoting TD2.28).  "Today you shall be with me in paradise."  (Luke 23:43)  There can be nothing more freeing, more life-giving that this promise obtained by the submission of faith.

The power of God which elicits and demands this response is not power in the way we might understand power.  It is wrong to use power--political, tyrannous--and our submission to it as the analog here.  (Matt. 20:25-29)  Jesus makes it clear that the power seen on earth is not the power he expects his disciples to exercise because it is not the power he will exercise when he gives his life as a ransom for many on the Cross.  This "power"--which Jesus compares to a power of service--is best understood in von Balthasar's eyes as a sort of aesthetic response to the divine Glory which (if one has the eyes to see) will see most vividly on the Cross.

"[T]he triune love of God has power [over us] only in the form of surrender (and in the vulnerability and powerlessness that is part of the essence of that surrender."  Steck, 81 (quoting Von Balthasar, "Eschatology in Outline," 435)  As Steck summarizes the issue: "Because it is not based on a power relation or demand of logic, but rather on an appeal to freedom, the aesthetic claim is both softer in its engagement with human freedom yet more effective."  Steck, 81.  It is through this particularly heuristic lense of aesthetics that von Balthasar is able to save his "command ethics" from "the mire of heteronomy which threatens Barth's ethics," and indeed any ethic based upon voluntarism, divine command.*  Steck, 81.

 The elevation by von Balthasar of the notion of "beauty" in the Christian ethical response to Jesus on the Cross--and the real meaning behind it--makes beauty in God (the divine Glory) a "theological category," and hence the response to such beauty--aesthetics--a "moro-theological category."**  This aesthetic component saves the divine command theory in Steck's view:

In pushing ahead to integrate the discontinuous and continuous themes in an aesthetics of the theological form, von Balthsar redeems divine command ethics for his Catholic audience. Perceiving the beauty of the human other always includes a moment of obedience or discontinuity, and this discontinuity is radicalized before the divine Other. Von Balthasar's theological aesthetics preserves the objective discontinuity of the divine and human judgments (divine glory is not earthly beauty) without postulating a disruption of human agency (i.e., mere hetronomous submission) in order to make this discontinuity tangible. His ethics offers an aesthetic version of what Paul Tillich describes as "thenonomous" ethics.***

Steck, 83.  By likening the ethical response to a human's response to beauty, i.e., by importing an aesthetics into moral theology, von Balthasar nimbly sidesteps some significant problems associated with the divine command theory will fully preserving the otherness and sovereignty of God.  Though submission to the Christ-event is wholly fulfilling, it is not--in the first response--fulfillment that drives our submission.  Though submission is to something "wholly Other," it is not a bowing down to a foreign power (which is at the heart of a religion such as Islam), but it is a sort of decentering of self when confronted with a sort of "hyper-beauty," the appearance of glory.  It is, nevertheless, a true submission, a recognition that we "could not construct its beauty on our own," yet it is a recognition that this Christ-form we see "transcend[s] our previous standards of beauty.  While there remains discontinuity between the nature of divien and earthly aesthetic claims, the heightened claim of the divine object is matched by its power to draw forth a human response of love."  Steck, 82.  We are not called to respond with a "Herculean attempt to meet its claim" (which would be a sort of Pelagianism), bur rather to respond with a "single-hearted recognition of its glory and majesty."

Succinctly: Von Balthasar's ethics might be reduced to the following: Deus pulchrum est!  Venite adoremus!  God is Beauty!  Come! Let us adore Him!

*As Steck makes clear, Barth also recognized the beauty of the Christ-event, but he did not give it the emphasis that von Balthasar did.  "While both Barth and von Balthasar maintain the appropriateness of describing God's work in Christ as 'beautiful,' only von Balthasar pursues the full implicatdions of a characterization for ethics."  Steck, 81.  The matter is further treated by Steck in pages 81 through 82 amply supported by citations from Barth's Church Dogmatics, but will not be elaborated here.
**Steck suggests that this distinction between Barth and von Balthasar is even more fundamental than the well-known dispute between Barth and von Balthasar on the notion of analogy of being (analogia entis).  Steck, 82.
***Steck cites in footnote 56 (on page 186) Paul Tillich's definitions of autonomy, heteronomy, and theonomy.  This is a very serviceable definition and will therefore be quoted here.  "Autonomy asserts that man as the bearer of universal reason . . . is his own law.  Heteronomy asserts that man, being unable to act according to universal reason must be subjected to a law, strange and superior to him.  Theonomy asserts that the superior law is at the same time, the innermost law of man himself, rooted in the divine ground which is man's own ground."  Steck, 186 (quoting Paul Tillich's The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948) (trans., James Luther Adams)).  In his encyclical Veritatis splendor, John Paul II makes a very similar distinction, though John Paul II takes about "participated theonomy."

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