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.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

God's Glory Appears: Found Wanting

IN HIS BOOK ON THE ETHICAL thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Christopher Steck, recognizing the thinness of von Balthasar's ethical thought, tries to develop or thicken von Balthasar's insights by joining them to Iris Murdoch's ethical reflections which are--like von Balthsar's--based on a sort of aesthetics. These efforts will not be reviewed, and so we will entirely pass over the penultimate chapter of Steck's book.

There is some valuable insight which von Balthasar's aesthetically-inclined ethical thought adds to moral theology, but in the main, it seems to be an inadequate account.  As we have seen, von Balthasar's ethical thought is highly influenced by Barthian Protestant thought.  In its zeal to erase or overcome the traditional nature/supernature or reason/revelation distinctions, von Balthasar's ethics turn out to be highly voluntaristic, almost fideistic.  There is, it would seem, little purchase in the theory for arguing a universal moral code (i.e., the natural moral law) independent of a response to God in Christ.

While there is some beauty in von Balthasar's proposals as a supplement to traditional theories of natural law,     and thought it may provide insights to the Christian moral life, it seems that von Balthasar's voluntaristic, Christ-focused, and mission-centered ethics are inadequate to allow conversations with non-believers.  Gone for all practical purposes is the will of God reflected in nature's order.  It is as if von Balthasar wishes to side-step the entire tradition in the Church which took in the Stoic moral insights and grafted them, with proper and careful pruning, into the Gospel trunk.

Perhaps von Balthasar's value is to remind traditionalists of Christ's importance in the ethical life, of Christ's one-on-one relationship with the believer, of the beauty that it is to behold Christ on the Cross and yield oneself over to that beauty that beckons from the interior heart of the Crucified one who gave himself up for me, indeed, who gave himself up for all  mankind.  Doesn't the crucifix demand a response, a discipleship, a taking up a cross of our own so as to imitate the great love of the Lord?  Surely this intimate I-Thou relationship must color, and indeed, not color, but be entirely central to the Christian's moral life?

But there is a fear in von Balthasar of the universal, of law, and this stems from a need to preserve fundamental autonomy, as if autonomy is the unum necessarium, the one-thing-necessary to preserve at all costs.  This autonomy, and the fear of any sort of moral heteronomy, is the bugbear of moderns.  It is, perhaps, the unfortunate heritage of a world that has been corrupted by the critical turn of Kant and the prior errors of Occam.

The Christian's response to Jesus on the Cross is more than submission to law, is more than taking upon oneself the yoke of duty, is more than putting on a robe of proferred grace upon a soiled body of nature.  It is the response of love to Love, of created love being given the supernatural grace to love Love as Love loved us, and then to love those loved by Love as Love loves them and as we love ourselves.  This response to Love is akin to response to great beauty, and so aesthetics--understood not in a Kierkegaardian sense, but in a Balthasarian sense--should play a supportive role in the entire economy of human moral response.

To view the ethical response in two dimensions--"vertical" and "horizontal" components--as von Balthasar does is not particularly controversial.  After all, these two components are reflected in the two-fold command to love God and to love neighbor.  Any Christian ethic will recognize the dual nature of the Christian moral enterprise and will never compromise the love of God for the love of neighbor or the love of neighbor for the love of God.

Von Balthasar's ethics stress our autonomy, but one fears it does so at the expense of law.  The replacement of law with covenant is, in my view, problematic.  The I-Thou covenant that von Balthasar proposes--where each Christian has his or her own covenant with the Lord--is dangerously lawless.  It is as if there is no order, no rule, no greater covenant that runs through and binds us all as humans, whether this "covenant" is one of the created order or one that is superadded to the created order.  All covenants, it seems, are between God and a people.  We are not all Noahs, Abrahams, Isaacs, Jacobs, Moseses, or Christs.  To view the moral life as a sort of amalgam of individual covenants seems to stress an individualistic ethos over a more communitarian ethos.

While the natural moral law as informed by Christ on the Cross is not the application of an extrinsic moral law, a law foreign to our nature, it remains a binding, universal reality which should not be viewed as minimizing our freedom or our unique response to Christ's beckoning call.  It is true that the "appropriate response to a moral situation will not be like the 'solution' to a mathematical problem."  Steck, 153.  The whole tradition of the virtue of prudence recognizes this.  Nevertheless, there is law, there is rule, there is a sort of minimal floor--the Ten Commandments, the natural moral law--where God will never require trespass as long as God is God.  These laws do not encumber "the Christian agent space for input and creativity."  Steck, 153.

While it is unquestionably true that "moral actors are not interchangeable," and that "a discernment of what is fitting for one agent in a particular situation does not necessarily apply to other agents," Steck, 153-54, it is likewise true that moral law is not interchangeable and that there are instances where something is without exception fitting or unfitting.  There are absolutes in the moral life, in the economy of salvation.  Moral life has a skeleton.  We are not moral amoebas.

There is truth in the following statement, but taken as an absolute, as the central moral guide, it would represent a collapse of Christian ethics:

The Christian will respond to God's approach not only according to what is required of all good people or all Christians but also according to "who" the Christian senses God calls him or her to be. That call will come objectively and subjectively--through neighbor-need, one's natural talents and gifts, one's life situation, the ways God gives one strength to do difficult tasks, the experience one has of one's identity, what biblical and ecclesial witnesses (or saint) one finds inspiring, one's own creative desires, and so on.

Steck, 154.

Similarly, no one will begrudge the role of the Holy Spirit in animating the Christian life.  The Holy Spirit is, after all, central to the life of the Church and to our participation in the life of the Church.  Without the Holy Spirit, we are orphans.   But the Holy Spirit has been invoked to excuse a whole lot of sins and a whole lot of disobedience.  The Holy Spirit blows where he wills, but where he wills conforms to the will of the Father and the Son, and not against the other two persons of the blessed Trinity.  "The Spirit's governance is not punctual and occasional, but dramatic, in that the Spirit looks finally to impress the christological form, which is itself a dramatic form, onto the drama of the world's broken tragedy."  Steck, 155.  "There are endless ways in which the ever-free and ever-greater Spirit of God can both speak God's address to each person in the idiom of the world and call forth something new, creative, and original in the drama of divine-human encounter."  Steck, 155.  Such truths--and truths they are--must be coupled with other truths.

Steck sees this and backpedals.  He admits that though there are "endless ways," one ought not thereby imply that "creation is endlessly malleable."  Steck, 155.  And yet there seems little in the way of guidance.  Indeed, statements such as these are positively frightful: "General 'norms' (not moral absolutes) are appropriate guides for the Christian so long as breathing space is allowed to the Spirit to impress new christological forms in our world and call forth new responses."  Steck, 155-56.  Are we given to believe, then, that there are no moral absolutes?  No "general 'norms'"?  Why this seems like the Holy Spirit is a spirit of anarchy.

Steck seems to relish in the Balthasarian moral formlessness.  A "moral theory 'need not be useful to be valid.'"  Steck agrees that von Balthasar's moral theories do not provide "primarily a method for ascertaining the good, but rather a description and explanation of the nature of Christian conduct."  He does not see this as a weakness, much less a "mortal blow."  What!  Me worry that von Balthasar's theory "does not easily produce clear answers to the perplexing ethical situations that confront the human agent"?  Steck, 156.

I have ultimately one word to say about von Balthasar's ethics as presented by Steck: תְּקֵ֑ל.  Tekel.  When placed on the scales, it has been found wanting.  (Daniel 5:27)

1 comment:

  1. Off Topic: FYI, The Platsis Symposium, held at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, will conduct a symposium on "Natural Law" on Sunday, September 23.