Friday, February 01, 2008

Matters Theological

Quite a succinct way of expressing what I find most off-putting about von Balthasar:
"De Lubac was, in the end, at once more strictly orthodox and more radically humanistic. For as will later be argued, where von Balthasar celebrated in the end the spectacle of a divine gnostic drama, de Lubac, like Berulle (and like Bulgakov), pointed towards the serene eternity of the God-Man." - John Milbank, The Suspended Middle, 14

St Thomas on Whether, if man had not sinned, God would have become incarnate?
I answer that, There are different opinions about this question. For some say that even if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion.
For such things as spring from God's will, and beyond the creature's due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been. And yet the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate.
Setting aside the question of whether this is the Angelic Doctor's complete and final answer on this thorny question, I think that it's worth noting what I take to be the central insight of his answer: we first and foremost know Christ as Saviour and Redeemer. We need to beware of any latent anthropological optimism in our theology which neglects this. We may also affirm him as the 'perfect man', the fulfilment of the project began in Adam and as the Word through whom the World was made... but in the order of knowing, these come after and are primarily derived from our recognition of Christ as Saviour.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

It would be a tragedy indeed if we all had to become Gnostics and Universalists simply because the visions of Adrienne von Speyr led von Balthasar down that path... It reminds me of Archbishop Fenelon and Madame Guyon, or of Meister Eckhart and Marguerite Porete, or--outside the Church--of the spectacle of scientist William Crookes' involvement with spiritualist psychic Katie King.

Anonymous said...

Sorry--"Katie King" being Florence Cook's name "in persona."

aelianus said...

Don't you think the most important principle here is that "such things as spring from God's will, and beyond the creature's due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture". The Scotists, and still unhappier breeds, by even accepting legitimacy of the question of whether Christ would (as opposed to could) have come without the fall undermine the principle that the fact that He did come is beyond the creature's due. How can such a question be answered without implying the finitude of God (who has to formulate contingency plans) or the infinitude of the creature (who disposes of a right to participate in the Divine Nature), or both.

Anonymous said...

I'd urge a tad bit of caution before giving the authoritative word to Milbank about the trajectory of von Balthasar's work as a theologian. Milbank has been known to give, occasionally, rather tendentious readings of other theologians.

Anyone can throw the label Gnostic around. Making it stick is another matter. Frankly, I don't get how "divine gnostic drama" properly characterizes von B. or distinguishes him helpfully from de Lubac. Divine drama, to be sure. But why does Milbank find it so crucial to throw in the word gnostic? Does it really help to make sense of von B's theology? It's an easy way to dismiss one's theological opponent, sort of like branding one's political opponent a "liberal."

Freder1ck said...

Anon (comment 4) - don't you know that the enemy of my enemy is my friend whatever his credibility?

Zadok the Roman said...

Goodness! I didn't mean to place so much weight on Milbank or his overall judgement of von Balthasar.

It just struck me that describing his theology in terms of 'a divine gnostic drama' captured in a few words what I find troubling about von B's thought. It might not, in the last analysis, be a fair or accurate assessment of von Balthasar, but it definitely resonates with me as an effective way of expressing why von B's thought makes me uneasy.

Zadok the Roman said...

Aelianus,

I'm not sure that I was trying to capture what was the most important principle expressed in that text.

Anyway, I could be snarky and ask you whether you genuinely think that the Redemption is a less important principle than the point that you make... but that would be a tendentious reading. ;)

More seriously, I see your point, and I think we're making ultimately the same point about the danger of thinking ourselves 'outside' the actual economy of salvation.

Re-reading Thomas's answer, however, one wishes that he'd made it as clear as you did that he wasn't really (for a just reason) answering the question.

aelianus said...

Humph.... The point I made concerned the gratuity of the redemption.

Well, he does say God could have become Incarnate anyway but we have scriptural authority only for the claim that he became Incarnate to save us from sin and as "such things as spring from God's will, and are beyond the creature's due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us." essentially the question is incapable of an answer.

Zadok the Roman said...

Mea culpa, Aelianus! I thought you were emphasising more the inscrutability of the divine will and the gratuity of the revelation of the redemption.

Freder1ck said...

Fair enough, Zadok! I was a bit cranky earlier and overreacting to trolling above.

To be specific however, I can say that if anything Balthasar is anti-gnostic: at every point preferring concrete details, persons, and history to fantasies of divine emanation. The Threefold Garland is a good, short, accessible example - as is the interview with Scola: Test Everything: Hold Fast to What Is Good. I confess, however, that I gave up on the Aesthetic trilogy years ago, having mainly read the first 3 volumes.

Anonymous said...

To be specific however, I can say that if anything Balthasar is anti-gnostic: at every point preferring concrete details, persons, and history to fantasies of divine emanation.

His scenario of the Descensus and the huge implications it has for salvation and Christology are in no normal sense that I know of linked to concrete details, persons, and history but to the visions of Adrienne von Speyr. And so all the more is the pity that he so strongly and evidently sensed that Gnosticism was the wrong path.

Tony said...

Zadok feels uneasy about Balthasar's theology of Saturday, and quotes Milbank. Anonymous supports him. Obviously de Lubac himself was NEVER uneasy about Balthasar's theology. So maybe the answer to Zadok's unease lies not in questioning Balthasar's orthodoxy but in himself. As for Anonymous, Cyril O'Regan, who has made it his scholarly career to examine the Gnostic Return of Modernity, and great expert that he is in Hegel's thought (see his "The Heterodox Hegel"), exculpates Balthasar from the charge of being infected with Gnostic tendencies.

aelianus said...

Fans of Balthsar who want to know whether he was really a Christian should go away and read his introduction to 'Meditations of the Tarot' by Valentin Tomberg. This should leave them in no doubt. Here he talks about giving himself up to the fallen angels who he identifies with the platonic forms. This short piece is the interpretive key to all his other works.

Freder1ck said...

Aelianus,
It's always interesting when folks propose 'interpretive keys' for works that go beyond them. I think especially of the innumerable keys that gnostics have proposed for understanding the 'hidden meaning' of the Gospels or how apocalyptic protestants have invented one after another 'interpretive keys' to turn the book of Revelation into a 5-year plan.

The intro to Meditations on the Tarot is entirely within the work that Henri de Lubac himself did: a work which sought out the beautiful, the true, and the good in everything. In de Lubac's case: Pico della Mirandolla, Pascal, Origen, Teilhard de Chardin, even Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevski.

Fortunately, with Balthasar, everything returns to the Catholic heart. And so, one can pick up the simplest, shortest book by Balthasar and see everything transparently. Here are the opening words of The Threefold Garland:

Christian prayer can attain to God only along the path that God himself has trod; otherwise it stumbles out of the world and into the void, falling prey to the temptation of taking the void to be God or of taking God to be nothingness itself. God is not a worldly object, but neither is he a superworldly thing to be aimed at and conquered, after making adequate technical preparations, by a kind of spiritual trip to the moon. God is infinite freedom, which opens up to us only on its own initiative. He not only addresses his Word to us, but makes it live among us. Thus, the Word that comes from God is also the Word that returns to him. The path between God and us has been trod in both directions: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." "I have come into the world as its Light so that no one who believes in me will remain in the darkness: (Jn 14:6; 12:46).

As for Adrienne von Speyr and her visions, I defer to the Church's judgment. As the Church has so far permitted Fr. Fessio SJ and Ignatius Press to promote her writings in English (not to mention in German and French, etc), I recommend the curious to see for themselves if a work like The Handmaid of the Lord is gnostic or Catholic...

aelianus said...

The Church rarely condemns false revelations it leaves them to die of their own accord. Adrienne von Speyr will probably be left at that. Her ideas about the descent are clearly contrary to the faith. This is no afterthought we are talking about an article of the Apostle's Creed. I have no brief for de Lubac either but a least he is a bit easier to pin down than Hans Urs's dance of a thousand veils. Balthasar has many works designed to ensnare the simple faithful by exhibiting apparently orthodox piety. In fact, his positions on many of the the fundamental tenets of the faith (like the Trinity and the Incarnation) are completely unacceptable (often blasphemous). It is tremendously tedious to disentangle the grotesqueries of these positions from the Teutonic nightmare that is the trilogy. Hats off to Alyssa Pitstick in 'Light in Darkness' who has slogged her way through the whole thing and unearthed the horrors within. Tolle Lege! The Tarot book is an interpretive key because for a second the mask slips and HUvB says in a few paragraphs (instead of 300 pages) what he really believes, and it isn't the Catholic Faith.

Freder1ck said...

Aelianus,
if I may ask, what is your judgment regarding the most recent thirty or forty years worth of popes, in particular Benedict XVI and John Paul II (who invited a symposium on Adrienne von Speyr in Rome in 1985 and who gave his explicit permission for the publication of von Speyr's posthumous works)?

aelianus said...

Happily I have a proper appreciation of the difference between the exercise of the papal office and the private acts of the individual occupants of the throne of St Peter. Nor do I need to scrabble around looking for scraps of tenuous favour from the Holy Father to justify the unjustifiable. I have scripture, the fathers, and the creeds and the doctors of the church. I will leave the digestive grumblings of the cosmic kirchengeist to others.