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, June 19, 2012

God's Glory Appears: The Moral Narrative

DIVINE COMMAND THEORIES OF MORALITY have a built-in problem arising from their premises. If morality is based upon God's will (and not reason), how do we link obedience to that command to human fulfillment, to happiness. Reason-based theories of morality rely on a direct relationship between the rule and nature so that following the reason-based rule, which is nothing other than conformity with God's design in nature, results in happiness. Divine command theories have difficulty aligning human happiness with God's will-based rule. It is nothing but the Euthyphro dilemma.* Does God will something because it is good, or is something good because God wills it. Reason-based moral doctrines opt for the former. Will-based moral theories opt for the latter.

As we have seen, von Balthasar's ethical theory, which is largely based upon covenant-thought, is a modified form of command-theory ethic.  Nevertheless, von Balthasar "argues that the ethical task given in God's call is precisely where human fulfillment is realized."  Steck, 72.  How does von Balthasar link the command to human fulfillment?   How does he overcome the discontinuity between the divine command on the one hand, and human obedience and fulfillment on the other hand?

"Even though von Balthasar's ethics incorporates the discontinuity between divine and human standpoints associated with divine command ethics, his ethics is ultimately teleological."  Steck, 72.  Von Balthasar, however, does not regard teleology in the traditional sense (conformity with nature's end), but rather he sees it in more personalist ways.  In general, von Balthasar views human fulfillment as "composed of two aspirations: the desire to overcome sheer and meaningless contingency and achieve a personal identity grounded in the absolute, and the desire to gain self-possession through interpersonal love."  Meaning and love.  It is the need for meaning and love that allows bridging the "discontinuity" gap between God's command and our obedience.  Obedience to the command is the only way for gaining such meaning and experiencing such love.

 "Tête à tête" by Fanny Allié

In accord with modern preoccupations, von Balthasar's ethics are more egocentric or existentialist than universal or essentialist.  They answer such questions as "Who am I?  What is my identity?  How do my finite choices establish that identity?  What role do the finite contingencies 'fated' to be part of my life have in making up my identity?"  Steck, 73.  Traditionally, Catholic thought views the matter in a more essentialist vein.  St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, focused "on the one, universal goal of all human agents and not on the unique 'I' that was in transition to the goal."  Steck, 73.  The "concern about how the unique, irreplaceable, and incommunicable core of the subject-self was to be realized in the moral life was not made an object of reflection."  The natural law, universal in character, and man's end--God was the focus.

For St. Thomas Aquinas, human fulfillment or happiness occurs as a by-product of conforming oneself to the divine plan as contained or written in one's nature.  Since all men shared one nature, all men ultimately had one and the same end: the beatific vision in God. According to Steck, there is sort of a "linear" notion in St. Thomas Aquinas that results from conformity to a rule, to a cannon, to a line. "Von Balthasar . . . interprets this purposefulness narratively.  For him, and individual's actions are given purpose by being united by and interpreted within a story that describes something 'true' about the agent-self and is therefore constitutive of the agent-self."  Steck, 73.  The moral life is not conformity to law, but participating in a meaningful story.

"Von Balthasar's ethics is teleological in this sense, that we week to fashion a completion of meaning (i.e., a narrative completion) out of the activities, accomplishments, and events of our lives.  Our ethical existence will correspond to the life story which embodies this narrative fulfillment." Steck, 74.

Since von Balthasar views ethics as "narrative," single acts do not play as much importance for von Balthasar as they do in St. Thomas and traditional ethics.  The ethical life is ultimately the amalgam, assembly, or combination of all the acts in our life's story.  "And if this life story is itself genuinely meaningful and fulfilling, then we can say that, prima facie, those actions which assist in shaping that identity are themselves good."  Steck, 74.  While as phrased, such a concept spells a recipe for disaster, we must remember that von Balthasar places this notion with the context of mission, and so the narrative of one's life is "formed around the unique christological mission given" to a person by God.  Steck, 74.

It is this link to the extrinsic concept of mission--something which comes to us from the transcendental God, the absolute God--that draws von Balthasar's ethics out of the immanent envelope of the "narrative I" and the "subject I."  Therefore, "for von Balthasar, it is becoming a 'self' [or more precisely a person] in relation to the [personal] Absolute, to relate the unique "I" that is one's identity to the [personal] Absolute."  Steck, 75.

Von Balthasar rejects any sort of incorporation theory in the sense of an individual incorporating himself either in a role or into a greater reality outside of himself.  He sees this sort of notion as confining, as trading in the person for abstractions, as robbing man of his freedom and autonomy.  The person is subordinated to something outside of him, and this bothers von Balthasar.

Rather than seeing the ethical life as conforming to something outside of one's self, von Balthasar prefers to see the entire process as a sort of invitation to the call of another: ethics are person-to-person, a tête-à-tête.  It is a tale of freedom:  

This is "God's masterpiece," to awaken through love a free response that embraces God's freedom and with it God's absolutely free "idea" for each individual. . . . We can then speak of two teleologies of human fulfillment: first, a narrative teleology where one's narrative identity is grounded in the absolute; and, second, a teleology of freedom, achieved in the interpersonal exchange [between a contingent person and the Absolute person]. The two movements both require a suspension of one's own agential aims and pursuits in order to receive what is other.

Steck, 76.

One's personal story (or narrative) and one's freedom is only fulfilled in the interpersonal exchange between the contingent person (me) and the Absolute person (God).  And in this interpersonal exchange, there is a sort of moral pause that is required of the contingent person as he listens to the invitation, to the command of the Absolute, a command that ultimately is grounded in love, love that is even self-abasing or kenotic.

*Named so after Plato's dialogue of the same name where the matter is discussed.

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