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.

Friday, July 13, 2012

God's Glory Appears: Vestiges of Grace in the Created Order

THE CREATED ORDER (as distinguished from the order of grace) receives some attention by von Balthasar. However, von Balthasar's attention to the order of nature does not recognize, even ex hypothesi, a natura pura, or pure nature. As Noel Dermot O'Donoghue sees it "Balthasar . . . rejects the traditional concept of 'pure nature.'"* (quoted in Steck, 190, n. 30)   Von Balthasar--along with the rest of la nouvelle théologie crowd--steps out of the natura pura paradigm.

The created order, however, does contribute three significant things to the ethical life in von Balthasar's view.  First, there is a real creaturely agency, a real creaturely activity.  It remains creaturely even when it is taken up into a relationship with the Absolute.  God has seen it to be so, as there is a "divinely willed counterpart to God," a "center of activity outside of God."  Steck, 104 (quoting von Balthasars's Theology of Karl Barth, 91, 105)  This creaturely agency or activity is not effaced when it is taken up to God, but is ennobled.  Our identity does not disappear into the Absolute, as if we get absorbed into the divine substance, or as if we suffer some sort of Buddhist or Hindu nirvana.

To be effaced by getting absorbed into good and losing one's creaturely separateness would be to banish love, as love--the Trinity teaches us--requires distinction of persons.  Here is the wonderful formula: "distance for the sake of nearness, autonomy for the sake of exchange and love, irreducible otherness for the sake of genuine union."  Steck, 105 (quoting von Balthasar's Theology of Karl Barth, 126)  Grace preserves this natural separateness which is part of the created nature of man.

The second area where von Balthasar preserves a created order is in the concept that the person has been "created and equipped as a creature of nature to encounter and find God in all things."  Steck, 106 (quoting von Balthasar's Theology of Karl Barth, 153).  Of course, here we have the classic Ignatian formula:  Encontrando Dios en todas las cosas.  God can be encountered in created nature.  Indeed, in most situations this is the principal way in which we encounter God--mediately in His works, deeds, and ordinances--and not immediately, "face-to-face" as it were.  There is, at least as long as we live in this temporal world, a distance between us and the Isaiahan "hidden God."

Significantly, however, von Balthasar seems resistance to give any significance to this encounter in God in nature in a fully created order (reason); rather, this encounter with God in nature is also necessarily the result of supernatural grace.

There is a true revelation of the personal God in our surrounding world, however much the revelation comes about for the Christian only in and through its being illuminated by the particular light of the Christian narrative. As one creature, graced body and spirit, the person does not encounter God's address as something hovering over creation, as if this revelation within creation was given to human reason super-naturally, and not also given precisely within the dynamism of creation and the events of human history. . . . Here von Balthasar emphasizes the subjective side to this, that creaturely eyes and ears have in grace been made perceptive of God's glory and address within creation . . . . Even the nonbeliever is not excluded from this address within creation: insofar as every person 'looks out upon a cosmos that is noetically and ontically [by knowledge and by being] saturated with moments of the supernatural, he will also be, at the very least--without knowing it--a crptyo-theologian.

Steck, 106 (quoting von Balthasars's Theology of Karl Barth, 280).  Again, supernatural grace is always in the mix, even in the unbeliever.  This appears to be consistent with von Balthasar's rejection of the notion of pure nature.  Even hypothetically, he seems to reject a notion of pure reason, of pure nature.  Grace is always found, even if it is only in the interstices of an unbelieving soul.

The third significant component of creation in the ethical life in von Balthasar's thinking is the notion that the created order has a "sphere of meaning" that is not neither isolated from, nor abolished by, the order of grace.  Von Balthasar strives mightily to keep grace always in the picture, while yet struggling mightily to make sure that nature somehow survives intact.  But as a result there is always a confusion, a blending.  For this reason, at least from our vantage point we are unable "with any absolute confidence [to] categorize the ethical horizon in which the Christian acts in terms of what belongs to the order of creation and what to the order of grace."  Steck, 106.

So the natural law--as something separate and apart from the life of Grace--is not something found in von Balthasar's moral theology (which means he has no real moral philosophy).  We can, at best, have "some confidence and hope . . . that the particularist view of the Christian can often find common cause with the outlooks of those guided and shaped by other [religious or secular] narratives."  Steck, 106-07.  This "common cause" is found in the "sphere of meaning," whatever exactly that is.  But this "common cause," is "perhaps less than found in some natural law approaches," which von Balthasar seems to forgo.  Steck, 106-07.

Von Balthasar suggests that the the "sphere of meaning" found in the created order displays a vestige as it were of the supernatural life of grace.  There is a sort of redolence of the entire nature/supernature plan which existed before the Fall that is left in the "sphere of meaning" of the created order.  The supernatural order therefore remains intelligible, though perhaps darkly so, to the created order.  The "sphere of meaning" in created nature is an "interior meaning," and it is a vestige of the original plan of God as well as the "economy of salvation" which seeks to repair that original plan.  God's grace--His supernatural presence in the created order--"will be gentle, even if sinful hearts find it bitter."  Steck, 107. 

Steck concludes this section with a quite beautiful statement:
Not even the natural human yearning for wholeness--that is, humanity's "'pre-understanding' of what God's 'redemption' might be"--is simply overturned but rather refashioned and transcended in God's revelation.
Steck, 107 (quoting TD5.33)

Von Balthasar is Catholic enough not to dump the entire grace/nature distinction; the question perhaps is: does he retain enough of it to remain comfortably within the tradition?
*O'Donoghue continues: "[T]his attitude has been disastrous.  In the first place it made any real dialogue between the Christian and his millions of non-Christian fellows . . . impossible."  Noel Dermot O'Donoghue, "Do We Get Beyond Plato?" in Bede McGregor and Thomas Norris, eds., The Beauty of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), 258, n.2.

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