Trinity and Cross: Karen Kilby on von Balthasar—Part 3

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I hope those interested in Balthasar ponder Karen Kilby’s reflections. Here is the third and final portion of her Ch. 5 response to Balthasar’s views on the Trinity and the Cross.

Too Integrated?
The previous section focused on how Balthasar knows all that he seems to know, how indeed any theologian could possibly be in a position to make the claims that Balthasar does. We turn now to a more critical consideration of what he says. In other words, even if one might accept in principle that any such detailed and intimate portrait of the inner life of the Trinity could be acceptable, there is an aspect of Balthasar’s account which ought still, I will suggest, to give significant pause. I will argue that we find in what Balthasar says of the Trinity the apex of a tendency which is in fact met at all levels in his writings, and that whatever one makes of this tendency which is in fact met at all levels in his writings, and that whatever one makes of this tendency at other points, here it is distinctly troubling.

What is this tendency? Suffering, loss, and self-abasement get a strong press in Balthasar’s works. A proclivity to case suffering in a positive light, and to link faith, love, and obedience with self-loss, self-abasement, even something like annihilation of the self, is something that constantly makes itself felt.

One can see this first of all in Balthasar’s treatment of the Cross, and the extension into Holy Saturday. There is here a dwelling upon suffering, a concern to bring out the depth, the immensity, the all-exceeding quality, of Christ’s agony. The interest is not primary with Christ’s physical suffering, nor with his suffering of injustice, humiliation, and betrayal on the part of authorities, disciples, and so on. Balthasar’s concern pivots rather on Jesus’ suffering of God’s wrath, his suffering the betrayal and abandonment by the Father, the hell of absolute God-forsakenness. And he is very concerned to insist on the intensity, the unbearable, unspeakable, unthinkable enormity, of this suffering. Because of Christ’s “filial intimacy with the Father,” Balthasar writes, he can “suffer total abandonment by the Father and taste that suffering to the last drop.” Balthasar affirms at a number of points that the experience of Holy Saturday is timeless; Pascal is right to say that “Jesus’ agony lasts until the end of the world” as is Be’rulle to speak of the eternal openness of Christ’s moral wounds. Balthasar represents Christ’s sufferings as exceeding and so in some sense containing all other suffering; he endorses Barth’s claim that “All that happened to Israel then [in the Old Testament] and since in terms of divine judgment is ‘only a faint reflection compared with the infinitely more terrible happenings that took place on Good Friday’,” and writes elsewhere of “wounds which transcend all inner worldly hurts.” Christ’s suffering “towers far above chronological time,” he writes in his collection of aphorisms, and “Never will an individual man or the totality of all humanity even approximately grasp and encompass these sufferings.”

If the salvific suffering of Christ, and an instance on its eternity and enormity, is important in Balthasar’s theology, then so is the fact that this is something which Christ can graciously “share” with his followers, Balthasar affirms at a number of points the existence of a mystical participation in Christ’s Passion, in Holy Saturday, in Christ’s experience of abandonment and God-forsakenness. He is interested in the mystics’ “dark night of the soul” in general, and in the experiences of Adrienne von Speyr in particular.

The importance in Balthasar’s theology of Christ allowing others a share in his suffering leads at some points to the distinctive and rather surprising exegetical moves. Why does Jesus weep at the death of Lazarus? This is a traditional conundrum, since, if one supposes that Jesus knows that he will raise Lazarus, there seems little cause for tears at his death. One solution that has been given in the tradition is that Jesus wept for the suffering of Martha and Mary, and on this Balthasar puts an unusual spin of his own:

He must have been deeply moved at the inner tragic dimension in which he had to share his God-forsakenness on the Cross (eucharistically and by way of anticipation) with those he loved in a special way.

In the delay of his arrival, in other words, through his temporary “abandonment” of them, Jesus has allowed Martha and Mary to share in his own experience of divine forsakenness, and it is for this, according to Balthasar, that he weeps. Or, perhaps even more startingly, Balthasar suggests that in the words to Mary from the cross, “Woman, this is your son,” Jesus is not so much providing for his mother as rejecting her and so allowing her a share in his forsakenness.

If, for some, an aspect of the Christian life may be the “gift” of a share in unimaginable suffering, in Christ’s Passion and God-forsakenness, this Christian life for all is fundamentally to be characterized as surrender. Self-abnegation, loss of self, and sacrifice of the self, are constantly to the fore in Balthasar’s presentation of faith and the Christian life – and these not just as the vocation of some, or as things that faith might sometimes require, or as things that the Christian must when necessary embrace willingly, but as essential, constitutive, defining components of Christian faith and life.

It is instructive here to consider Balthasar’s treatment of Mary’s fiat, her consent to the angel’s message in the annunciation. This Balthasar takes to be the perfect and archetypal response of faith. “Let it be done to me according to thy will”: allowing oneself to be molded and stamped by God, allowing oneself to become as wax is, for Balthasar, the perfection of faith. He is keen to insist that this is not passivity, but what he calls “active receptivity.” Nevertheless, it is construed very much in terms of self-abnegation. Mary’s achievement, the “highest…made possible by grace,” is “unconditional self-surrender,” “pure transparency. Pure flight from self. Pure emptied space for the Incarnation of the Word.”

The sense that suffering, self-abnegation, and indeed humiliation carry some sort of positive valuation for Balthasar is confirmed at almost every turn in his writings. If we limit ourselves to a single, relatively slender volume of essays in ecclesiology (the second volume of Explorations in Theology), we find reference to the Church as “borne by the suffering members” to the “inner mystery of suffering” that the Constantinian church of glory hid; to the true Christian spirit as “the will to poverty, abasement and humility”; to the “real, fruitful humiliation” of Peter, which was not a “mere exercise in humiliation”; to a humility which, because we are sinners, must be “instilled into us by humiliation”; to “self-abnegation in the service of Christ” as the only way to reveal Christ’s own self-abnegation; to a self-abnegation that liturgical piety requires – one which indeed Balthasar describes as “this violent, this often ‘crucifying’ sacrifice of the pious subject to the ecclesial object”; and to “complete self-abnegation and obedience to the hierarchy” as something Charles de Foucauld rightly commended.

Even when Balthasar expresses thanks to his family, this same alignment of love and suffering makes itself felt. In a retrospective essay written in 1965, after a paragraph on the impossibility of properly acknowledging all that one ought to be thankful for, we find the following:

And where would a man end, if he wanted to begin thanking those of his fellow men who accompanied him on his way, formed him, protected him, made everything possible? Left and right the greetings would have to go: to the nameable and the nameless. A mother is there, who during the course of a long fatal illness dragged herself to Church each morning to pray for her children. Other close relatives, of whom (to what ends God knows) fearful sufferings were demanded. Only in the light of God will one really know what he has to be thankful for.

He is of course thanking his family for nurturing, loving, and educating him – this is presumably all covered in the first sentence cited. But what particularly calls out for granted here is, first, the painful prayers of one suffering and dying, and then simply sufferings whose purpose is unknown.

retablo_of_the_holy_trinity-by_alcario_otero-2001What are we to make of all this? Opinion will perhaps divine. Balthasar is not alone in this sensibility which aligns on some very fundamental level love and sanctity with suffering, and faith with self-abnegation. Something similar can be found in late medieval thought and practice, and in strands of Counter-Reformation and nineteenth-century piety. On the other hand, to develop such alignments is by no means an instinct which has characterized the whole of the Christian tradition: it is largely absent from the Fathers and from Thomas, for instance. It is a sensibility which some will take to be an authentic, developed expression of a theology of the Cross, and element of the mystical tradition that Balthasar laudably retrieves and revitalizes in the fact of the shallow optimism and activism of his time and our own; and which others will find alien, and see perhaps as a masochistic distortion of Christianity.

Whatever one makes of this alignment as it pertains to the characterization of Christian faith and the Christian life, however, there is a fundamental problem when a similar alignment is imported into speculation about the inner life of the Trinity – and this is in fact what we find in Balthasar.

I write of a “similar alignment” rather than “the same alignment” because Balthasar does not – quite – bring suffering into the Trinity. But he does speak of something in the Trinity which can develop into suffering, of a “suprasuffering” in God, and, as we have seen, of risk, of distance, and of something “dark” in the eternal Trinitarian drama. We have seen that he consistently construes the giving internal to the Trinity in terms of giving away, giving up – in terms suggestive of loss. And we have seen that he has a kenotic understanding of the giving which makes up the Trinitarian life, so that he can speak of the Father letting go of his divinity, giving it away, surrendering himself, going “to the very extreme of self-lessness.”

By bringing together in his depiction of God self-loss, self-abnegation, something that comes very close to self-annihilation on the one hand, and love on the other – or again, by bringing bliss together with something that can be described either as supra-suffering, or as that which can develop into suffering – Balthasar is fundamentally blurring the distinction between love and loss, joy and suffering. If love and renunciation, suffering (or something like it) and joy, are linked, not just in the Christian life, but eternally in God, then ultimately suffering and loss are given a positive valuation: they are eternalized, and take on an ultimate ontological status. And then, it seems to me, it becomes hard to understand how Christianity can possible be “good news.” [66]

Donald MacKinnon, an early and highly influential Anglican admirer of Balthasar, reads Balthasar as a theologian who, more than many others, reckons with the Holocaust. In an essay dealing with the Christological of the Theo-Drama, MacKinnon, writes:

In the pages of his work with which we are here concerned there is comparatively little that treats directly of these horrors; but the nervous tension of the whole argument bears witness to the author’s passionate concern to present the engagement of God with his world in a way that refuses to turn aside from the overwhelming, pervasive reality of evil…[Balthasar] insists on a vision that can only be won through the most strenuous acknowledgment of the cost of human redemption.

MacKinnon is certainly right about Balthasar’s insistence on a “strenuous acknowledgment of the cost of human redemption”: as we have seen, Balthasar insists on stressing the enormity, the infinite weight of what took place on Good Friday and Holy Saturday – where Christ in some sense plunges into the experience of all that is most wrong with the world and bears it himself. But we have also seen that Balthasar is concerned to root the Cross firmly in the immanent Trinity, so that there is no question of God at this particular stage taking on something new, something previously unknown (this is what Balthasar believes must be rejected of Moltmann): instead there is the working out on the Cross of something always true of the immanent Trinity. The blurring that I have described in Balthasar’s thought, between bliss and suffering, between love and loss, necessarily follows from these two moves: if Christ is to take into himself all that is most wrong, and if this is not to be something new, but something always in some way anticipated in the Trinity, then it seems that there is no way to avoid importing into God’s eternity something of all that is most wrong and so introducing a sort of fusion of the highest love and the greatest bliss with (something like) the greatest suffering and the profoundest loss. In Balthasar’s hands the effort to grapple in full theological seriousness with tragedy seems in great danger of finally flipping over into something like a divinizing of the tragic. [68]

This section is entitled “Too integrated?” and we are now in a position to see why. On the face of it, Balthasar is impressive, perhaps unsurpassed, in the integration he achieves between soteriology and Trinitarian theology. But the cost turns out to be high. The way in which Balthasar brings together reflection on the immanent Trinity and reflection on the world’s horrors involves, in the end, an introduction of elements from the latter into the former, elements of darkness into the divine light. The highest love of God and the greatest misery of the world are reconciled in his thought by introducing elements of misery, destruction, and loss into the conception of love itself.

___________________________________________

[66] I would, in other words, be inclined to judge exactly the reverse of Balthasar about the relation between darkness and God. He writes that “we have no right to regard the Trinity one-sidedly as the ‘play’ of an absolute ‘blessedness’ that abstracts from concrete pain and lacks the ‘seriousness’ of separation and death (The Action, p. 325). I would suggest to the contrary that Christians have no right to overcome their incomprehension of evil by introducing pain, separation, and death (or something like them) into their talk of God, no right to the intellectual resolution that comes from knowing of some happening in God that “justifies the possibility and actual occurrence of all suffering in the world” (ibid., p. 324).

[68] Alyssa Lyra Pitstick’s Light in Darkness picks up well on these or closely related dangers in Balthasar’s thought. In contrast to the tradition, she writes, “Balthasar seems to ascribe a positive value to suffering and death in themselves in virtue of their likeness to the suffering Redeemer, not to mention the Trinity” (p. 133). She argues very effectively, too, that although Balthasar may maintain that sin has no place in the Trinity, “this position remains on the level of assertion” (p. 238), in that the whole weight of his thought, both in making sin a reality in itself, and in relating it to the distance between Father and Son, in fact points in the opposite direction. In her conclusion Pitstick insists that “Christ has come that we might have life, not death, and that we might have it in its fullness (see John 10:10). It would be the worst betrayal of this age (not to mention of Christ) to offer it elaborate theological platitudes suggesting its woulds are its life, thereby remaking God in its image” (p. 347). The characterization here of Balthasar’s theology as platitudinous is surely rather polemical, but in other respects I would concur with Pitstick.

 

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2 comments on “Trinity and Cross: Karen Kilby on von Balthasar—Part 3

  1. rwwilson147 says:

    Are you suggesting that von Balthsar’s theology of Christ and his inherently Trinitarian submission to the horrors of his crucifixion as an ontological incorporation or evil imply a virtual ethical/moral monism?

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    • Tom says:

      Hadn’t thought about Balthasar in those terms, but I suppose one could argue that’s where his soteriological trinitarianism leads. I’d have to give it more thought. On the other hand, I’m not sure a moral pluralist couldn’t get completely behind Balthasar. So, what about Balthasar’s view do you think implies moral monism?

      Tom

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