What does Jerusalem have to do with Vienna?

Paweł Czerwiński

What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? Since Tertullian posed this question, it has become a short hand way to frame the relationship between philosophy and theology. But as this extended quote from the novel Mystical Paths illustrates, the better question for our age might be, what does Jerusalem have to do with Vienna? In other words, what is the relationship between theology and psychology?

“My father had long ago since grasped that the language of Christianity and psychology could form two ways of expressing one truth, but I longed for a detailed synthesis which would make Christianity blaze across the minds of unchurched mid-twentieth century masses and render its message meaningful. It’s no good performing the classic academic exercise of expressing Christianity in term of the latest fashionable philosophy. That appeals to no one outside the universities. For the mid-twentieth century you’ve got to express Christianity psychologically because even the average moron at a cocktail party has heard of the Oedipus complex. Or in other words, psychology’s the grass-roots intellectual language of our time, and if you can translate Christianity into that, everyone will finally understand what the preachers are whittering on about in the pulpit—and then with understanding will come spiritual enlightenment…”

Though the novel is set in the mid-1960’s, Nick’s insistence that “psychology’s the grass-roots intellectual language of our time” could be said for our day as well. In the context of pastoral ministry, I have seen that people have not only absorbed a lot of pop psychology and readily speak its language. They are also hungry to understand things in psychology terms. As an example, the explosion of interest in the Enneagram within Christian circles shows the deep hunger for both self-understanding and the ease with which people begin to speak a new language.

So on one level, I resonate with the quote and see the value in learning to speak in these terms and to look to psychology for resources in translating the faith within given context. I see this as related to the question of mission and contextualize, a topic I hope to pick up in earnest in the new year as I continue to work through David Kettle’s Western Culture in Gospel Context.

However, just as expressing Christianity in terms of a fashionable philosophy can have have a distorting effect, so that the theology comes to serve the philosophy rather than the other way around, so too can expressing Christianity in terms of psychology go awry. On the most basic level, psychological models change and certain models are uneasy bed fellows with classically Christian understandings of the human person. More fundamentally though, the great temptation in translating the faith into the language of psychology is that such translation becomes a reduction, so that the faith is reduced to nothing more than a kind of therapy. If faith is therapeutic then the driving question becomes how does this make me feel rather than is this true. If faith is merely therapeutic it is all the more easily abandoned for something else that “just works better.”

The deep irony, as Darrow himself comes to learn in the novel, is that the Christian tradition itself has deep reservoirs for psychological self-understanding. Augustine and The Confessions famously comes to mind, and one only needs to spend time reading John Cassian or almost any passage chosen at random from the Philokalia to see that Christianity has long had an interest in plumbing the depths of human motivation.

No Golden Age? No problem.

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?

Does theology have anything to do with holiness?

In this post and in the next few posts, I want to explore some of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s reflections on the relationship between theology and spirituality, or what he tends to call the relationship between theology and sanctity, what we might now call the relationship between theology and holiness.

Now these two words, theology and holiness, might seem a curious pairing to us, and this is precisely the issue Balthasar hopes to address. Theology/holiness, contemplation/action, believing/living—we tend to see these more as dichotomies and dilemmas rather than as dynamically related and mutually informing realties. But the two absolutely belong together, and the fact that they aren’t seen as belonging together is for Balthasar a story of decline and a story of divorce. Their separation is therefore grievous and unnatural. To illustrate Balthasar offers this striking image in the essay “Theology and Sanctity”, saying that theology without sanctity is “bones without flesh” and that sanctity (spirituality) without theology is “flesh without bones”.

Taking this image of the body, we might say that what results from the separation of theology and sanctity is a kind of formlessness, something incomplete and not wholly itself. As he concludes, “Only the two together (corresponding to the prototype of revelation in scripture) constitute the unique ‘form’ capable of being ‘seen’ in the light of faith by the believer, a unique testimony, invisible to the world, and a ‘scandal’ to it.”

Thinking of scripture as offering the prototype, I was put in mind first of Paul, and the way the opening prayers in his epistles are so often road maps to his theological reflections, and the ways, like in Romans 8, that his theological reflections are transposed into prayer and doxology.

I was also put in mind of Augustine and how so much of his work is either actually prayer or is suffused, surrounded by, steeped in, prayer. The Confessions are of course a famous example of this, but you can see it throughout his work. Here is a portion of a prayer from the end of The Trinity that nicely captures Augustine’s deep desire not simply to understand something, or to explain something, but rather to see and be transformed by what he has sought to understand:

“Do Thou give strength to seek, who has made me find You, and has given the hope of finding You more and more. My strength and my infirmity are in Your sight: preserve the one, and heal the other. My knowledge and my ignorance are in Your sight; where You have opened to me, receive me as I enter; where You have closed, open to me as I knock. May I remember You, understand You, love You. Increase these things in me, until You renew me wholly. “

The Trinity, XV.28, taken from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130115.htm

As another example, I think of Anselm who calls his work the Monologium “an example of meditation on the grounds of faith.” In other words, to use a more famous phrase of his, he is engaged in “faith seeking understanding”, and this prayer from the Prosologium illustrates how central prayer is to that larger quest of knowing God:

“I pray, 0 God, to know you, to love you, that I may rejoice in you. And if I cannot attain to full joy in this life may I at least advance from day to day, until that joy shall come to the full. Let the knowledge of you advance in me here, and there be made full. Let the love of you increase, and there let it be full, that here my joy may be great in hope, and there full in truth. Lord, through your Son you do command, nay, you do counsel us to ask; and you do promise that we shall receive, that our joy may be full. I ask, O Lord, as you do counsel through our wonderful Counsellor. I will receive what you do promise by virtue of your truth, that my joy may be full. Faithful God, I ask. I will receive, that my joy may be full. Meanwhile, let my mind meditate upon it; let my tongue speak of it. Let my heart love it; let my mouth talk of it. Let my soul hunger for it; let my flesh thirst for it; let my whole being desire it, until I enter into your joy, O Lord, who are the Three and the One God, blessed for ever and ever. Amen.”

Prologium, CHAPTER XXVI. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/anselm-proslogium.asp

In these prayers both Augustine and Anselm assume not only a relationship between theology and holiness, meaning that what they believe ought to have some effect on how they live, but also the relationship between love and knowledge, that what they know of God moves them to deeper love of God, and deeper love moves them to deeper knowledge. The divorce between love and knowledge is the deeper issue faced by theologians today, and in my mind it is only in restoring that relationship that we can then heal the divide between theology and holiness. This is why Sertillanges and Griffiths are both such important voices in their respective descriptions of the intellectual life. They both understand the vocation in terms of love and desire. I pray that the same would be true for me and for a whole generation of theologians who hope to serve the church with theology.