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, February 27, 2011

Balthasar's Theological Vacuoule, Part 3

THERE IS A TENDENCY TOWARD REDUCTIONISM of nature in Hans Urs von Balthasar's understanding of nature within the greater question the nature/supernature complex.

The theological concept of nature is primarily a negative one: it draws a boundary line. It can only be distilled into a pure state through a process of subtraction, because God's initial creation was already supernatural to begin with and continued to remain so after the Fall.

The greater of what Balthasar states here is unobjectionable. It is true that, in the light of Revelation, we know our nature both prelapsarian and postlapsarian was created with the supernatural life already bound with it by God's own plan. But these comments suggest almost as if everything is taken up into the supernatural sort of as if the natural salt dissolves into a supernatural sea. This is precisely the sort of monophysitistic image that is provided by the notion of distilling. You have to boil out the alcohol of the supernatural life, and the dregs that you are left with after subtracting out the supernatural is what nature is. It is a residue.

Hans Urs von Balthasar

There seems to be a conceptual disorder here. It is as if for Balthasar nature is not "first" in being, but the admixture of natural life and the supernatural life of man are together "first" in being. However, as Long states, it appears essential to maintain that "created nature is ontologically prior to the reception of grace even if the two are temporally simultaneous, because it requires a created receiver of grace to receive grace." Long, 67. Long's greatest grievance in the paragraph about is the image of "subtraction." He insists that a proper conceptual feel of nature would view the process of visualizing nature prescinded from grace would be a process of "abstraction," and not one of "subtraction." For Balthasar, it seems that nature is nature only when combined with grace, but nature is nature whether it had been combined with grace or not.

Now common sense claims to know what nature is. But the more exactly it tries to grasp it, the more difficult--nay impossible--it becomes to isolate it neatly from the other dimension: supernatural grace. But it is equally difficult to espy the negative effects on the realm of nature of the loss of grace. The question, for example, how far "ignorance and hardship belong to natural existence," how much concupiscence, disease, death (and the forms that death takes) are the result of sin or are part of the definition of being human and animal; but also questions about marriage, community, the State, our relation to a God who might not have revealed himself in in his personal, interior life, the necessity for prayer in a natural state (which many people deny, for good reasons), the eschatological fate of the soul, resurrection of the body, Last Judgment, eternal bliss: all such questions addressed to pure nature are simply unanswerable.

There are four great grievances against this paragraph. First, is the suggestion that distinguishing nature from grace is more than just difficult, but "impossible." To suggest that there is no understanding of nature apart from grace, that it is "impossible," is simply an untenable proposition. This theological despair at knowing nature apart from grace simply does not accord with Catholic tradition which has always felt itself able to abstract a notion of pure nature, a nature that hypothetically could have existed without the gift of sanctifying grace in which it was actually in history bound. The Catholic tradition also has seen nature has having its own integrality and end, even apart from grace, albeit subordinate to the grace and the supernatural end to which it is lifted up. There is in nature a capax Dei, a specific sort of potentiality of obedience (potentia obedentialis),* one which reason is able to distinguish and to grasp as something intelligible. Certainly, there is no real question of "impossibility."

The fault is apparent when Balthasar suggests that nature-apart-from-grace knows no necessity of prayer, that reason would not alone compel nature to worship God as First Cause. But this denial is given harsh treatment by Long:

[T]his denial is utterly contrary to right reason. As Aguinas shows with masterful orthodoxy, public worship and prayer is owed to the Creator from whom every public and private benefit is derived, and the virtue of religion falls under the natural good of justice . . . . Balthasar . . . has somehow missed the presence of the natural knowability of God as Creator . . . and the datum that from this natural knowledge devolve natural duties in justice to God.

Long, 69.

This agnosticism of nature-apart-from-grace that Balthasar seems to advocate has significant practical results, especially in the area of natural law. Granted, some of the questions are unknown to and unknowable to nature: the Fall, Redemption, the Resurrection, Eternal Life. These are matters that are part of the revelata, that are revealed and are mysteries beyond nature's reason of which nature is ignorant. But certainly not all of these areas is nature or nature's reason ignorant. Insofar as nature is unknown, then the natural law is unknown, and this is exactly what Balthasar seems to be saying: "[Q]uestions about marriage, community, the State . . . addressed to pure nature are simply unanswerable." The difficulty of some of these questions--especially the further one gets from fundamentals--is acknowledged by all in the field, but the impossibility? What this position suggests is there is a complete inability of Christians to speak with non-Christians on the matter of the practical life. Dialogue on the moral life basis of reason is in vain. We are forever caught in the shoals of a moral fideism. This is contrary to the practice of the Church and her understanding of herself as custodian of the natural moral law, a law that is founded upon the nature of man.
[A]ll such questions [about marriage, community, the State, etc.] will be unanswerable for someone who has jettisoned the doctrine of the adequatio of mind and thing in behalf of a modal supernaturalization of nature so complete as to suggest that, apart from its ordering to grace, there is nothing in the real order present to be known.
Long, 70. This is a radical error, an one which seems to have infected the great Balthasar.

To be sure, there are any number of theologians who do not hesitate to come forth with a ready-made answer to all these questions. One should once more bear in mind, however, that it would only occur to theologians in their work as theologians to pose such a question. But as soon as they come up with something remotely pertinent to this questions, they inevitably give us a "system of pure nature," that is, merely a pale, phantasmagoric double image, a hollow phantom of the real, existing world order. The success with which this pale film was lade over the real order has only meant "the loss of feeling for the infinite qualitative different between grace and nature."

One senses here a bit of the chauvinism of the agnostic in this paragraph, a chauvinism where the agnostic holds himself superior for his ability to grasp that he knows nothing certainly. The chauvinism of the agnostic seems unbecoming in a Catholic. It is a different virtue than the humility of the man who knows that there is truth, that he has got a little bit of it, although he is never fully the master of it. Is the man who says that all men are bound by the natural moral law never intentionally to take the life of an innocent man regardless of the gain an ignoramus with "ready-made" facile answers? Is the man who insists that marriage is, by natural law, an exclusive union between one man and one woman someone who can be brushed off as one with "ready-made" answers?

The language here is hostile. Those who claim to prescind an order of nature from the complex of nature and grace wherein God has put nature simply come out with a "hollow phantom," a "pale phantasmagorical double image." Granted, it may be that Balthasar is concerned with assuring the preeminence of the supernatural life of man, but the best way to preserve the preeminence of the supernatural life is not by deprecating the natural life of man, as it is the natural life of man which is taken up, raised, lifted up and made to bloom, in the life of supernatural grace which God, in his infinite largess, has deigned to give to man. To acknowledge a natural life in man does not mean the supernatural life is demoted or seen as "only a kind of Doppelgänger." Long, 71. These are non sequuntur. There is no reason that a balanced, articulated view of nature and supernature cannot be maintained, one that fully respects the integrity of the natural order and the preeminence and marvel of the supernatural calling which draws the nature into the very bosom of the Trinitarian life of God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.


*For the concept of obediential potency, see our blog postings Natura Pura: Human Nature Unaided, Natura Pura: St. Thomas in a Nutshell, Part 1, Natural Pura: St. Thomas in a Nutshell, Part 2, and Balaam's Ass and Stained Glass: The Concept of Specific Obediential Potency.

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