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, July 1, 2012

God's Glory Appears: The Problem of Christian Particularism

ONE OF THE BIGGEST PROBLEMS with von Balthasar's Christian's ethics is its lack of foundation in created nature.  Its Christocentricity makes it largely unintelligible to non-Christians.  It suffers from what might be called "Christian particularism," and therefore is weak on moral universalism.  In von Balthasar's view, the moral life is a submission to the command of God as revealed to us most forcefully in the theodrama of the Christ-event wherein the glory of the Lord is revealed.  This person-to-Person covenant, while marvelously Christocentric, departs from the traditional notion of the natural moral law as something universal, and something that provides normative guidance for the Christian (as well as humanity at large).  For von Balthasar, it would appear that the "claims of the created order are insufficient for ethical guidance."  Steck, 93.  Only revelation or supernature counts, not reason or nature.  Von Balthasar's ethics are therefore focused on what we might call the "vertical" order, and therefore weak when it comes to explaining the "horizontal" order.  It might be criticized for being "too Christian-particular," i.e., too Protestant, "to be authentically Catholic."  Steck, 94.

Nevertheless, in his book The Ethical Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Christopher Steck argues that "von Balthasar's thought preserves a relative autonomy of the horizontal order and with it a noetic component (i.e., understanding, reason) of the moral life."  Steck, 94.  In short, the natural law--based upon nature and discovered by reason--is not foreign to von Balthasar's ethical thinking.  Steck believes that von Balthasar's "thought permits a greater role for practical reason than might be expected, though less than Catholic ethicists of a universalist stripe would want."  Steck, 94.  But in reality, it appears that Steck is arguing that what is needed is "sound Christian ethics needs an adequate theological anthropology, and that such an anthropology will require some element of Christian particularism."  Steck, 96.

 St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata by El Greco

It is a fundamental feature of Catholic moral thought that the moral life is something that is objective.  The norms of our moral life are found in nature, and by the use of right reason man is able to discover the natural moral law, which is man's participation in the eternal law of God.  Though our reason has been weakened by the Fall, it is not so darkened as to be unable to detect God's original plan as manifested in the things that are seen.  (cf. Rom. 1:20).  There is a law of God in the human heart that is accessible to all men, i.e., the Gentiles, and therefore they are culpable for its violation. (cf. Rom. 2:15)  This natural law is the lingua franca of the moral life among men.  Though revelations might buttress it, and though divine positive law may supplement it or add additional requirements, the foundations of morality are based on nature.  Supernatural grace then builds on such nature, to repair it, to perfect it, to restore it.

This universalism is threatened by divine command ethics, since the latter tend toward particularism.  If ethics are built upon a command of God in revelation--whether that revelation is taken to be found in Christ or the Scriptures, or even the Church's teaching authority--then the role of nature, and God's intent for the created order, seems to be ignored.  The centrality of Christ in von Balthasar's ethical thinking "endangers what the Catholic tradition has viewed as the relative autonomy of the created order."  Steck, 95.  The centrality of Christ in von Balthasar's ethics makes his ethics particular and detracts from universalism because "at least some of the ethical claims which confront the Christian will not be shared by all persons but will, rather, be particular to the Christian."  Steck, 95.  Can this Christian particularism and Catholic universalism be reconciled?

Steck is convinced that the universalist strain and the particularist strain can be reconciled, and that von Balthasar's thought can be fitted into traditional Catholic ethical thinking.

Von Balthasar's ethical particularism develops out of his conviction that in Jesus Christ God addresses humanity personally and concretely.  At the same time, von Balthasar maintains that God's address does not violate the order of creation, and thus he strikes a balance between particularism and the Catholic traditions' deep commitment to ethical universalism.
Steck, 95.

"For von Balthasar, we cannot . . . continue with 'natural ethics' as if Jesus Christ were not the 'norm of everything.'"  Steck, 96.  Von Balthasar is therefore committed "faith ethics," and disdainful of what might be called "reason ethics" or "natural ethics."  Moral theology therefore completely eclipses moral philosophy.*

In some respects, what's involved here is the age-old controversy between nature and grace.  The proponents of la nouvelle théologie--de Lubac, von Balthasar, Yves Congar, etc.--seem to have stressed supernature and spurned the notion of "pure nature" as having any normative validity since the suggestion of nature without grace is hypothetical at best since God intends nature always to be graced and never ungraced.**

*But  one might observe that  if Christ is seen as the perfect fulfillment of the natural moral law, then how can there be a tension between "natural ethics" and "faith ethics"?
**See the discussion in this blog of Steven A. Long's Natura Pura where this aspect of these theologians' thought is criticized.

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