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.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

God's Glory Appears: Looking Back from Christ

EEVER SINCE HENRI DE LUBAC's view of nature and the supernatural, of nature and grace, there has been a sort of collapse of consensus among Catholic theologians in this area.  In their rejection of a hypothetical state of pure nature (but one with its own end and its own integrity, separate and apart from grace, though--in reality--there was never a time, and never will be a time where pure nature was intended to exist without being tied intimately to the supernatural life of grace), there has been a sort of conflation between nature and grace.

The result is that often grace itself has become naturalized, immanentized so that all are Rahnerian "anonymous Christians," all participate in grace in one way or another, and the uniqueness and importance of the Christ-event seems to have been compromised.  The Christ-event is simply the apex of this nature/grace muddle.  There is only one "existential order," a muddled natural-cum-supernatural one. Alternatively, nature seems to have disappeared from importance, and all is grace and supernatural.  Here, ethics ignores universal laws, any constraints of nature, and all becomes a one-and-one existential encounter.  Each man's path is his own path: man does not have a path he shares with others, a path which may be found by looking at what creation tells him.  "The encounter with God is such that it transforms worldly ethics and refuses the hegemony of natural law."  Steck, 101.  In short, things have become muddled.

In fact, things have become more than muddled.  In some cases, the collapse of the nature/supernature distinction has resulted in tendencies that are dangerous to say the least.  Witness this quasi-anarchical statement from Rahner:

And the ultimate meaning of this revelation [in Jesus Christ] is a calling of man out of this world into the life of God, who leads his personal life . . . as the tri-personal God, in inaccessible light. God is thereby bring himself immediately face to face with man with a demand and a call which flings man out of the course pre-established by nature . . . . [T]here arises the most immediate possibility that [God] might issue commands to mankind which are not at the same time the voice of nature, are not the lex naturae. And if God calls man in this command of his revealing word to a supernatural, supramundane life, . . . [then the world] is condemned to a provisional status, a thing of second rank, subject to a criterion which is no longer intrinsic or proper to it.

Steck, 101.*  While there is nothing objectionable per se in Rahner's statements taken singly, there seems some dangerous tendency arising from some sort of underlying deprivity.  Something smells rotten, sort of like when you open a refrigerator door and smell spoiled food.  You cannot at once find where the foul order might be coming from.  While most of the food is good, there is one piece that is not quite right.

Rahner's formula raises the possibility--only implied, but others have acted on it--that the natural moral law (the lex naturae) no longer binds.  It seems we all have become potential Abrahams who, in obedience to God, may be called to a one-on-one discipleship which requires us to act against the natural moral law.  If we are "flung out of the course pre-established by nature," if God's voice is "not at the same time the voice of nature," if the natural moral law "is condemned to a provisional status, a thing of second rank, subject to a criterion which is no longer intrinsic or proper to it," why in the wrong hands this is a recipe for Christian anarchy.

Whether von Balthasar's ethics is infected by this muddle is uncertain.  Steck believes that von Balthasar avoids a too-strict separation between nature and supernature/grace, but also avoids the problems associated with the modern tendency among the theologians of la nouvelle théologie, of conflation of the two orders of reality.  He navigates between Scylla and Charybdis and offers us the prospect of a perfect recipe for the nature/supernature conundrum.   I am uncertain whether this is the case.

 Salvador Dali's Christ on the Cross According to St. John of the Cross

What von Balthasar seems to do is to seize on Karl Barth's insight that creation is the "external basis of the covenant," and the covenant between man and God in Christ's revelation is the "internal basis" of creation.  Steck, 103.  "Von Balthasar finds this description completely acceptable as a way of relating the two orders [of nature and grace], but believes that Barth himself does not always do full justice to creation."  Steck, 103.
Although there has always been only one human reality, i.e., the graced existence of the person called and destined to be one with Christ, it remains important [to von Balthasar] to preserve a conceptual distinction between the orders of creation and grace. This is necessary not so much in order to protect the gratuity of grace by postulating a "pure nature," sufficient and meaningful apart from grace, but to exclude any hint of what von Balthasar calls "theopanism," where creation is emptied of any ontological reality and instead all that is real in the covenantal encounter is attributed exclusively to the domain of grace. The distinction of the orders underscores that grace works in and through an order that has its own integral, albeit relative meaning, even while leading that order to its perfection.
Steck, 103.  Here's the problem for von Balthasar (which is common to the advocates of la nouvelle théologie).  "Since humanity has always existed within the call of the Word and the presence of the Spirit in the one economy of God, the 'nature' that grace presupposes," so the argument goes, "cannot be uncovered by bracketing the historical 'addition' of Christian revelation."  Steck, 104.

Von Balthasar therefore resists any kind of clear delimitation of nature and grace.  For him such distinction is as hopeless at it is sterile.  And yet he endeavors to preserve these categories in a manner.  He does this by "peer[ing] through the present economy, within the epistemological brackets of the Christ-event," and this allows us to make some "general observations about human existence apart from the full light of Christ."  Steck, 104.

Von Balthasar approaches the problem from the terminus ad quem looking backward, whereas the traditional Thomists might be said to look at the problem from the terminus ad quo looking forwards.  Is this a problem of whether we are to be Epimethius or Prometheus, a looking behind versus a looking ahead?  Is this a question of "what did Christ come to save?" versus a question of "what did Christ save?"

[I]nstead of starting from principles drawn from the revelation in creation to arrive at the revelation in the Word as the crown and summit," von Balthasar proceeds "in the reverse direction, from the revelation in the Word to that in creation," "by determining what the word of revelation itself presupposes and implies."

Steck, 104.**  "Christ is the 'one and only criterion,' 'by which we measure the relations between . . . grace and nature.'"

Using this technique of looking backwards from Christ, the "one and only criterion" by which the "relations between grace . . . and nature" might be gleaned, von Balthasar (in Steck's analysis) identifies three claims of the created order which are important in the ethical life: (1)  the created order gives rise to an agency (a human person) distinct from God; (2) God's call is perceived within creation in some manner; and (3) the creature's encounter with grace preserves, and does not destroy, the spheres of meaning in the created order, so the life of God in Christ is intelligible even when viewed from the created order.

We will discuss these three features in greater depth in our next posting.

*The quote is from Karl Rahner, "The Ignatian Mysticism of Joy in the World," in Theological Investigations, vol. 3 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1967), 285-86. 
**The quotations are from von Balthasar's "The Implications of the Word," in The Word Made Flesh, Vol. 1 of Explorations in Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 48.

No comments:

Post a Comment