There is no golden age, and that is a good thing.
“We are living in a time when the images of the gods and idols are crashing all about us. The spiritual and cultural traditions of vast regions of the West are increasingly being called into question; indeed, we can go even further and say they are being liquidated, quickly and relatively painlessly. Just as a tree in autumn drops its leaves without pain or regret in order to gather once more new strength from within, to renew its powers in hibernal peace, so too the tree of culture is now being stripped of its leaves.”
So begins Hans Urs von Balthasar’s essay, “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves”, an essay where Balthasar examines those specifically Christian streams of thinking, writing, reflection, and prayer that have nourished the tree of culture in the past.
But this opening points to something that is especially worth taking to heart: Look at the tree, he says. Stop looking at the dead leaves on the ground. Stop lamenting that you live in autumn. Look up. Though the season speaks of coming death, the tree isn’t going anywhere.
The point is worth taking because looking at the tree and rightly discerning the season in which we live helps us guard against a temptation Balthasar readily describes, namely the temptation to return to some golden era, some previous age that is imagined to be better and purer simply because it was prior. First is best, we might say. Earlier is purer. And because of this temptation we might lament living through autumn rather than spring. He argues that we are especially prone to look back to the Patristic period with “Romantic longing”. Why? Because the Fathers were first and are therefore purer. But to return to the image of the tree, the argument of first is best, first is purer, is like saying “I would rather have a sapling than a redwood.”
To be clear Balthasar notes the ways in which there is a purity to Patristic thinking, a spring time newness to things. And there is a sense in which what they faithfully did, what they thought and what they died for, set the parameters and the terms of the conversation that continued in their wake. But they have not said everything. We must keep this in mind because of this temptation to look back on a particular historical moment or a particular thinker and believe that their way is the way, that their way is the only way to approach things.
This does not mean that we don’t have anything to learn from earlier ages and earlier thinkers. Quite the contrary. Take the example of Paul, though we must begin with understanding him in his context in order to faithfully preach what he preached, it is not enough to simply say,this is what Paul said, and then imagine that we have said everything there is to say. We must move to the next step, which is coming to terms with what Paul is saying to us in our time and in our place. Now what Paul is saying will not wholly contradict what Paul said. Remember the primary metaphors Balthasar employs are organic—the tree, the stream—so this is not about radical discontinuity and rupture. But being faithful to the word is something more than being able to say, this is what it meant. We have to be able to say also this is what it meant then, and this is what it means now, because the word of revelation is a living word.
I find Balthasar’s point about avoiding a naive nostalgia about the past especially interesting because I grew up in a context where the church of the book of Acts was held up as the golden age of the church. It was a variation on the argument that first is best, that first is purest. And Balthasar will have none of that thinking. I know people, and I myself have been guilty of this, who have traded the church of Acts as the ideal for the theology of the Fathers as the ideal, but Balthasar challenges both ways of thinking and says, yes, looking back is part of being faithful, and s we should look back, and we should read and learn and understand, but not so that we can perfectly replicate what they did in their time and place, but so that it might source our own faithful expression in our own time and place.
An historical example, he says, is only ever an analogy, and for him the inner paradox of analogy is that for all the similarity, there is always the ever greater difference, which means that we can glean things, yes, but we cannot perfectly replicate them, nor should we try. Take for example an argument that I hear a lot, namely that the time in which we are living in is like the fall of Rome. There is something to this argument that resonates with people, and we can readily find touch points, and it is a reason that some many are finding great nourishment in returning to Augustine and The City of God. Though we should read Augustine and learn what he is saying to us now, the analogy is never perfect. As Balthasar puts it, theology at its best in a given era is the the light of Truth breaking through “a vast number of mosaic shards of broken and smokey glass: in the thousands of many forms in which it is announced, systematized, humanized” (369). Which means that even in autumn, and even in a coming winter, the light comes and is coming into the world, and though we might only be a shard of broken glass, we are still able to let the light shine through. So the question becomes what might it mean to faithfully speak the living word in the midst of an autumn?